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Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons is a provoking historical drama. Thomas More, who is considered to be an honest man, is entangled in the politics of the day and having to decide between his own welfare and his personal conscience. Thomas is an absolute saint of the church, but now he had to choose between two different kinds of loyalty. The theme seems to be recurring, regardless of the age or setting. In fact, it is the Common Man who reminds the audience "The 16th century is the century of the common man. Like all the other centuries." By performing different characters with same personalities, “Common Man” enabled the audience to understand the complexities of More’s character in the way of juxtaposition.
The Common Man in the play is actually an alienation device, which was first invented by Bertolt Brecht. Here, the Common Man is an effective device to maintain interest, interpret the action and convey the themes. He just like the Chorus in ancient Greek drama, whose role was to review the action, explores motivations and issues, foretell what might happen and explore any consequences. Both the Common Man and the Chorus relate the play to audience’s everyday life and their frame of reference in modern society. He is the linkage between the audiences and the stage. Just like how he is called, the Common Man, has all the characteristics ordinary people does. He has ordinary morals, ordinary doubts and ordinary concerns, which means he is always ready to compromise, distrustful of martyrdom and plays things low. He is the “Old Adam”, he is “us all”.
Thomas More, who is the Chancellor of England during Henry 8th, is just the opposite of Common Man. At that time, Henry and his wife Catherine had been unable to birth a boy to be the heir of England, so Henry wanted to divorce with her and marry Anne Boleyn, but cannot get permission from the Pope. Henry tried very hard to get help from Thomas More because he is known to be an honest man and had very good reputation across the whole Europe. Henry pointed out extremely clearly that “Because you are honest. What’s more to the purpose, you’re known to be honest.” However, More is a strong principled man who held his belief firmly, he was loyal to the Church, at the same time, as the Chancellor of England, he cannot be disloyal to the King.
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Compared with the Common Man, the characteristic of honest of Thomas More is clearly observed. In Act One, More offered Rich a silver goblet, and spoke frankly and bluntly that the goblet was a bribe from a woman who had a case at the court. More can certainly not say so, but he didn’t. When the King came to his house to talk about the divorce, the King pointed out directly that “Because you are honest. What’s more to the purpose, you’re known to be honest.” But when it comes to the Common Man, it all turned to be upside down. Matthew stole the wine of Thomas More, but lied about it; In order to protect himself, the Publican denied stoutly about knowing who Cromwell was; Jailer chose not to report Sir Thomas More’s statements for his own safe. The Common Man lies to survive, he holds his belief on self preservation, he is not a great man, he cannot affect the decisions of the Parliament, and he is only a common man, a man do whatever it takes to survive.
More is also very loyal, to both the King and the Church. He didn’t want to betray either side, so he chose to be silent. He is a liberal thinker and a man of integrity. Even he didn’t want to swear to the Act, and resigned from his office, but he still concerned for the country. He warned Norfolk about threaten from the old Church and asked him to “keep an eye on the Border”. However, the Common Man doesn’t have this good quality. Matthew, a person who should be loyal to his master, Sir Thomas More, offered information about him to Cromwell, Rich and Chapuys for money. He became one of the sources of Cromwell; he sold his soul out and turned into an accomplice who sent More to death. When Sir Thomas More resigned from the position, he had to cut down Matthew’s wage, and without hesitate, Matthew left him and went to be the servant of Rich Richard. These two men’s acts are so different that we can see Thomas More’s characteristics of loyal clearly.
Sir Thomas More is a man of principle as well. He held his belief in God so strong that nothing can bend it. He is a son of the Church. When Roper proposed to More that he wanted to marry his daughter, he refused for Roper was an heretic. More knew that Roper was a good young man and admired him a lot, but he still said no for his principles. Roper married Margaret as soon as he turned back to the Church. In order to uphold the principles, he insisted not signing on the Act, even he is threatened by death. But the Common Man changes the principles according to convenient. At first, the boatman tries to bilk More for more money, but eventually, after More is dangerous to get close to, he even refused to take him home. Whether it is the Steward, the Boatman, the Publican or the Jailer, each persona is full of self-interest and simple pragmatism. "It isn't difficult to keep alive, friends . . . just don't make trouble, or if you must make trouble, make the sort of trouble that's expected."
The metaphor of water appeared many times in the play. Water is flowing and changeable. The succession of characters the Common Man portrays provides an image of that fluidity. When people are aligned with the Common Man, they can find it difficult to comprehend Thomas More. For he got so many opportunities to save his life and reunite with his families. It’s hard to understand his martyrdom and strong belief in the law. In the contrast, Common Man knows the time and precisely when the stakes are too high, ”If it's worth that much now, it's worth my neck presently. I want no part of it. They can sort it out between them. I feel my deafness coming on." More also has an understanding of them, even when they steal his wine. “Matthew, I shall miss you.” While the play centre on More’s choice to die rather than sign over his name on the Act, it’s easy to determine how More’s characteristics are presented to the audience. If More is defined with his words, "a man's soul is his self", then the Common Man may best be defined by his philosophy, "better a live rat than a dead lion". Even at times the Common Man is dishonest, manipulating, unscrupulous and disloyal; he is a master of living in the society. He changes his values easily like the water bounce back when hit on the bank. Thomas More held his unchangeable principles
The alienation device has challenged our perspectives and left us with much to ponder.
Ultimately, it is not only how we, the audience, perceive the Common Man or even how he sees himself. Most importantly, it is the understanding that those in power have of the Common Man and his motives, ideals and aspirations.