Thomas More: Preserving Self in Society in A Man for All Seasons

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Some might say he’s a hypocrite. Others may adopt a Christian perspective to his moral struggle. Robert Bolt, however, would describe him as a man who exemplified an “adamantine sense of his own self” (Bolt xii). A Man for All Seasons, although non-theological in its scope, nevertheless presents a dramatic hero of no small interest to the contemporary Christian, but whose significance does not end there. Sir Thomas More, a well-known martyr and inspiration to those “moral” among us, is a man of inexorable integrity, whose steadfast adherence to his religious and ethical beliefs led to his tragic demise, and to the expanding popularity of his character. More’s struggle presents a morally blatant — and historical — example of man’s struggle to assert his spiritual self in a secular society.
Perhaps a brief history of More’s struggle is needed. Sixteenth century England: Henry VIII’s brother, Arthur, dies. Arthur was to be king and had already married Catherine of Aragon. A husband must be provided, so at the prodding of the Spanish and English monarchies, the Pope threw out the doctrine that stated a man may not marry his brother’s wife and Henry and Catherine wed. They rule happily — for a while — until Henry falls in love with Anne Boleyn, finds out Catherine cannot bear him any sons, and desires to divorce her. The Catholic Church does not support his requests, and Henry attempts to persuade them otherwise, claiming the marriage should be annulled based on its original religious illegality. The Church and More do not buy this claim, considering Henry caused the problem in the first place. More was Henry’s Lord Chancellor and resigned the position when Henry split with the Church in 1531. In 1534, Parliament passed a bill requiring all subjects to take an oath (Oath of Supremacy) acknowledging the supremacy of England’s king over all foreign sovereigns — including the Pope. More refused, was imprisoned, and then executed in 1535. The play presents his dilemma to stay true to his friends, country, and God.
In his preface, Bolt addresses the apparent contradiction between More’s realism and his continuing resort to legal and moral loopholes. He poses questions of why, if More believes so strongly that the divorce shouldn’t take place, does he hope to find a “way out” in...

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...not feel a connection to an “immortal soul, which [they] regard as absolutely inviolable” (xiv). Thus, that is why he portrays More as a “hero of selfhood” — a testament to his ability to stay true to himself (e.g. his immortal being).
More placed a large amount of faith in a “patterned and orderly” society and the laws that governed it. More’s trust in the law was his trust in society, thus Cromwell’s shattering of “the forms of law by an unconcealed act of perjury” showed the fragility of that shelter More had created for himself. No doubt, More was given the opportunity to slide back into his safe zone of law and order. However, he remained resolute and continued with the decision he had made while under the comfort of that “shelter.” This is in stark contrast to other characters in the play, namely Will Roper, who would shift faiths based on high-minded ideals, each time convinced of his own righteousness. Bolt seems to imply, through his “tragic” hero, that one cannot comprehend all that is good and moral in the world — much less condense it into something “orderly” and “ideal” — and thus, should concentrate on oneself and one’s place in society.

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