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A Man for All Seasons is a play by Robert Bolt showing the rise and fall of its main character, Sir Thomas More. Set in 16th century England, the play exposes many similarities between its era and ours. There are of course differences, with its strong theme of social hierarchy and the immense power harnessed by the reigning monarch, King Henry VIII. While there are still elements of these in Britain they are certainly far from apparent today.
The social hierarchy is shown mainly through garments; the colour of the garment shows their position. Henry always wears gold and Wolsey always wears red etc.
There are many strong themes in A Man for All Seasons one of the strongest being corruption. A Man for All Seasons focuses as much on the fall of Sir Thomas More as it does on the rising of Richard Rich. In the first act, scene eight, Rich gives Cromwell information about a silver cup given to More as a bribe. Though More rids himself of the cup as soon as he realises this, Cromwell thinks he might be able to use this to his advantage. Cromwell, desperate to find out more about the cup, offers Rich a job for the information. At this point Rich loses his innocence, his moral values are disregarded and he has damaged his life. Rich has sacrificed the goodness of his own self, which the play reasons to be the only thing for which life is worth living. Though at first Rich shows remorse he later has no qualms and values his social position above all else.
In contrast, More would never betray his moral values for anything, nor anyone as shown by the fact he dies for his conscience at the end of the play despite his desperation to live. More is as witty as he is saintly and relies on this to save his life on many an occasion “The world must construe according to its wits. This Court must construe according to the law.” Thomas is showing that his silence (under English law) must be construed as giving consent and not denial. He spends much of his time making light
of the dangerous situations that he encounters.
More respects God’s laws above all others “God’s my god. . . . But I find him rather too . . . subtle.” However, here I think he shows that he doesn’t always understand it and, therefore, the law of the land is sometimes the best guide for his course of action.
The common man is the most evident dramatic device used in the play. His main purpose is to personify attitudes and activities common to us all. The majority of his characters go about their lives and work having no regard towards other people’s reactions or interests, nor any other consequences. Thus, most of them betray their own moral values, this is later justified this by the fact that they were still alive; unlike More.
The common man also bridges the gap between the 16th and the 20th century by interpreting and relating effects to modern scenarios.
The most ironic occurrence in the play is that Thomas More leads a good life; he does everything the play suggests is correct regarding morals. Rich betrays everything the play suggests is correct regarding morals. Ultimately, Richard Rich lives a long happy life and gets everything he wants from it; More dies an iniquitous death following Richard Rich’s betrayal.
Water is often used through out the play as a metaphor for life. “The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing,” Here More is describing Roper’s beliefs as being lost at sea. Roper, though never betraying his morals Roper doesn’t seem to be able to quite decide what his morals are.
Events set on the water appear to have a more ‘super natural’ feel, where as events set on land have a more real and sociological one. For example, when King Henry VIII arrives at More’s home, the stage directions say: “Henry, in a cloth of gold, runs out of the sunlight…” This, to me, creates a surreal image, like perhaps a shot from a film of King Henry VIII slowly emerging from his boat and encompassing all around him in pure, white and gold light; England’s symbol of all wealth and power.
The water is also used to show corruption when Thomas More’s life is described as being the clear path down the middle of the river and other people are the silt and dirt that accumulates at the edges.
King Henry VIII use the river to show his claim to all the land of England, “… the river, my river…” here he is re-enforcing his authority.
Moor lives in Chelsea on the bank of the river, this setting plays an important role in the play as it is where many of the events that build up Thomas’ character occur. Outside of his home there is the Tower and Hampton Court where many of the main historical events occur. Bolt continually contrasts Thomas More’s domestic life with the happenings of the cour throughout the play.
The alienation effect is almost certainly the most common dramatic device within the play. Backdrops change, shadows are used and messages drop down onto the stage. It is used to remind the audience that they are watching a play in a theatre and can not be mistaken for real life as the common man addresses the audience in an aberrant way.
The common man changes his costume in front of the audience to show his transition from outside the play to within it. When inside the play the common man introduces characters, again to bridges the gap between the audience and the historical events.
Bolt used the common man to address the audience directly on many occasions when he is outside the play; in these asides he bridges the gap between the audience and the historical events within the play.
The play seems more realistic because Robert Bolt describes the life of the English people in the 16th century through both the eyes of the nobility and the eyes of the common people.
Alice, Thomas More’s wife is immensely dissimilar from their daughter Margaret. Margaret is very much like her father, and though she is desperate to find a way to save her father’s life she understands why he will not sign the oath, his wife, Alice, however, does not seem to understand it. I think she has irascible feelings towards him for not signing the oath, however, through her great emotion at the prospect of his execution she can’t really express this.
There are many moments in the play where pathos is evident; none more so than the moment More’s family visit him in prison. They are given scarcely five minutes with him before they are hustled out by the common man. Though the common man regrets doing this he knows it is Thomas or himself and, as today, the majority of people look out for themselves first. This is one of the fundamental messages that the play tries to illustrate.
King Henry VIII thinks of Thomas More as a friend, but as he says himself “No opposition I say!” he will have no-one stand in his way, be it pope, friend or common man.
“I’m anchored! To my principles!” This is Thomas More perfectly summarising his character. Unfortunately, because of this in combination with the aforementioned quote from King Henry VIII he is brought to death after Richard Rich lies under oath.
Consequently, Richard Rich gets his position in office as the Attorney General for Wales and dies having had a long, contented and prosperous life as Chancellor for England.
All in all, Robert Bolt uses a myriad of dramatic devices to contribute to the dramatic effect of A Man for All Seasons the most common being the common man and in combination; the alienation effect. Water is frequently used to depict everyday scenarios through use of colourful and thought invoking metaphors.
The common man is always shown to be witty and bright throughout all of his roles, from steward to executioner he makes many sharp remarks. As Matthew, the steward, he manages to acquire money from Chapuys and Cromwell for information they already have regarding Thomas More through the use of his intelligence and great wit.
In conclusion I think that the film lies very close to the play and is therefore an excellent way to study the play.
You may ask why I have given this "SH" - you are obvioulsy very knowledgeable about this play, but then again so am I - this is NOT a review of the film and your references to The Common Man and the link to the16th and20th is not in the film.
Also you point to stage direction and the like which will not help viewers of the film.
I have seen both the play and the film and I am not taking away your A-level knowledge of this play, but I do know that this review has been crow-barred into this DVD review and it does not quite work.
I am sorry, but if it is any consolation I do agree with you on the issues although some would say that fo rThomas moore to die a saint is more reward that Richard Rich ever received.
Mel27 08.11.2005 15:57
I still haven't seen this and I really should. It was only on TV a few days ago and I missed it!