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Theatre / A Man for All Seasons

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Wolsey: Now, explain how you, as a councillor of England, can obstruct these measures for the sake of your own private conscience.
More: I think that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.

A Man for All Seasons is an award-winning play written by Robert Bolt and Inspired by… actual historic events. After successful runs in London (1960) and New York (1962), it was adapted to film in 1966. The play and the film made a star of Paul Scofield, who won both a Tony Award and an Academy Award for his performance. The film picked up five additional Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay (Bolt), Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), and Best Picture. Also appearing in the film's cast are Wendy Hiller, Leo McKern, Robert Shaw, Orson Welles, Susannah York, Vanessa Redgrave, and John Hurt.

Once upon a time — that time being early in the 16th century — Sir Thomas More was an English barrister who became the country's Lord Chancellor and the most trusted adviser of King Henry VIII. More was a devout Catholic with a keen moral focus, and his advice was good.

Then Henry wanted to divorce wife Catherine of Aragon, who'd failed to produce a living son, so he could marry the fertile Anne Boleyn. More refused to support this plan; he considered it immoral, and against his religion. The fact that the original marriage had been arranged to help foster peace with another Catholic country (Spain) didn't help.

So Henry decided to Take a Third Option: leave the Catholic Church and found a brand-new one, the Church of England, with himself as its head. More hated this idea and refused to support it; although he'd made a bit of a stink about corruption and abuse of power in the Church, his devout Catholicism forbade him from supporting an outright schism. But pretty much everyone else who was anyone in the government did support the king. More, rather than kick up a protest, decided to resign his post and keep his mouth tightly shut, but the fact that he would not publicly endorse the idea nonetheless made it pretty obvious to everybody that he was against it.

King Henry VIII was now good and angry at Thomas More, and the persecution started in earnest...

In addition to the film, the play has been produced for television at least three times, including a 1988 version starring Charlton Heston which stuck more closely to the stage version, notably retaining the Fourth Wall-breaking Common Man narrator-character.

In 2006, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a radio drama adaptation for their Saturday Play, using music composed by Henry VIII himself and featuring Charles Dance as Sir Thomas More.

Tropes associated with the play A Man for All Seasons include:

  • Affably Evil:
    • Archbishop Cranmer, in contrast to the bully Cromwell. He's actually envious of More's certainty that he's going to Heaven at the end.
    • Henry VIII is jolly, gregarious, and friendly with his court and subjects. However, anyone who crosses him winds up imprisoned in the Tower or with his neck on the chopping block.
  • Almighty Janitor: Cromwell's official title is Secretary of the Council, or "Master Secretary". But he's pratically Henry's right hand man by the end of the play.
  • Ambition Is Evil:
    • Richard Rich, whose climb up the political ladder requires him to deliver More to the executioner.
    • Cromwell. His rise in Court greatly alarms More, his family, and Norfolk.
  • As the Good Book Says...: More, paraphrasing Matthew 16:26 (and Mark 8:36 and Luke 9:25):
    More: Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world... But for Wales?
  • Author Tract: The play makes it very clear that More is the fella we're supposed to be cheering for.
  • Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work: Cromwell is Henry's agent, and does most of the "disagreeable tasks" in the play. Notably the King himself doesn't order Norfolk to join the conspiracy against More, he has Cromwell do it for him instead.
  • Being Good Sucks: It's a major theme; Thomas More remarks that vice often brings greater rewards than virtue, so we must expend extra effort to be good.
  • Break His Heart to Save Him: Norfolk has been ordered by the King through his proxy Cromwell to join the conspiracy against More. Norfolk, not wanting to do it, tells More all about it, in friendship. More goads Norfolk into ending their friendship with a heated argument in order to spare him the conflict of having to choose between their friendship and his duty to the King. Even then he only half-suceeds, Norfolk implores More to take the Oath like him for fellowship.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The Common Man addresses the audience directly.
  • The Caligula: Henry VIII by the play's end. He will not tolerate any criticism about Anne or his separation from Rome. Any poor fool who does speak his mind will be charged with treason and have their head cut off.
  • Commander Contrarian: Roper. More remarks that the Ropers are only happy when going against the tide, and correctly predicts that a serious attack on the Church will make Will change his mind.
  • The Corruptible: Richard Rich. More is well aware of this and tries to convince him to take a post as a teacher at a new school, a place "where he won't be tempted".
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: Meg's boyfriend Will Roper is a fine young man from a good family who's been called to the Bar and later offered a seat in Parliament. He just happens to be a Lutheran, or in More's view a heretic. Roper eventually goes back to Catholicism, and marries Meg.
  • Death Glare: When a frustrated Norfolk begs More to take the Oath of Supremacy for the sake of friendship, he blurts out "I'm not a scholar, I don't know whether the marriage [between Henry and Anne] was lawful or not!" which results in a brief but intense one of these from Cromwell.
  • Decadent Court: Being a government offical does not entail job security when Henry VIII is in charge. If you fail him or displease him expect a trumped up charge of treason somewhere in your future.
  • Disappointed by the Motive: More's reaction when he finds out that Richard Rich betrayed him in exchange for being named Attorney General for Wales.
  • The Ditz: The Duke of Norfolk is short a few little gray cells, mostly so that the audience can get some much-needed legal exposition. He says as much himself at one point, admitting that he is "no scholar". This is lampshaded:
    Cromwell: Oh, well done, Sir Thomas. I've been trying to make that clear to His Grace for some time!
  • Dragon-in-Chief: Henry VIII drives the action, but Cromwell is one who does most of the work.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Sir Thomas More, who stands up for what he believes in and is eventually executed.
  • Downer Ending: The only person to get a happy ending in this story is Rich.
  • Establishing Character Moment: One of More's earliest scenes is turning down bribes from people whose cases he's about to judge, whether they're rich nobles or poor farmers.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Cranmer does not like the idea of Cromwell bribing the Jailer to commit perjury against More.
  • Evil Is Petty:
    • Wolsey plants the idea that More should be the next Chancellor after him as revenge for refusing to help him secure a divorce:
    • Cromwell convinces the King to make Norfolk part of the Conspiracy against More out of pure spite.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Sir Thomas knows exactly where his resistance is taking him.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Wolsey and especially Cromwell.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: Rich is the only one in More's circle who actually likes Cromwell. Rich himself could qualify as well.
  • Genre Blindness: More believes if he just keeps quiet about his opinions on the marriage he can live out in peace. Lady Alice is much more cunning.
    Lady Alice: Poor, silly man, do you think they'll leave you here to think?
    More: If we govern our tongues they will!
  • The Ghost: For all that she's mentioned, Anne Boleyn never appears onstage in the play.
  • Greek Chorus: The Common Man, who also takes on multiple roles (including More's executioner).
  • Hard Truth Aesop: Given by the Common Man at the end of the play.
    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.
  • High Turnover Rate: Henry VIII goes through courtiers and ministers at an alarming rate.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: No mention is made of More's attitudes towards heresy and capital punishment which were suited to his age but not ours.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • Henry VIII is portrayed as an intellectual cipher, though possessed with a low cunning. In reality, he was, like all the Tudors, something of an intellectual with a real appreciation for fine culture.
    • The play and film helped codify Thomas Cromwell's reputation as the amoral ur-villain of Tudor England. More recent historical and fictional works have significantly revised this portrayal.
    • Cardinal Wolsey, who is portrayed as ruthless, openly corrupt and without friends or principles. Like Cromwell, Wolf Hall and other recent depictions of Henry's court have done much to soften his reputation.
  • Hollywood History:
    • Among other things, the play doesn't mention More had three children besides Margaret: Elizabeth, Cicely, and John, besides his various foster children. (BTW: It is historically correct that More made sure his daughters received full formal educations — a rarity at that time.)
    • One odd omission is that while the Duke of Norfolk is a major character, the fact he is Anne Boleyn's uncle goes unmentioned.
  • Holier Than Thou: More is a genuinely devout and honest man, but he doesn't lord his virtue over others. That said he does play this trope straight in his dislike of Lutherans (a common belief at the time) and his willingness to drive his family into poverty (along with his household staff) and possibly endanger them as well by angering the King.
  • Hollywood Law: More is made to say that "When I was at law, it was the custom to ask the prisoner if he had anything to say before sentence was passed upon him." This is the garbled US version. In England, it is "Do you know of any reason why sentence should NOT be passed upon you?", in the unlikely event that there is cause for the defense to "move in arrest of judgement". (As Henry Cecil points out from his days on the bench, most criminals in the dock have no idea of this, and judges find it easier to just let them ramble when they take it as an invitation to rant about whatever is eating them than to try and shut them up.)
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Sir Thomas More. He's impossible to bribe as a judge.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Henry VIII does have Biblical basis for wanting a divorce: lying with your brothers widow is considered to be a sin, and he genuinely believes his lack of a male heir is God's punishment, and that the King of Spain and the Pope are keeping him in a state of sin for their own reasons. Henry VIII was only able to marry his brother's widow because of a special dispensation granted by the Pope, but over time Henry came to believe the Pope never had the authority to do so.
    • Cardinal Wolsey points out that without a legitimate male heir, England may well fall to civil war when Henry dies.
  • Joker Jury: The jury of More's trial is composed of broomsticks wearing hats, except the Common Man, who's the foreman.
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Henry VIII goes from a wanting a divorce from an unhappy marriage (that was forced upon him by his father and ministers) to being a paranoid tyrant who will not take any criticism of his rule.
  • Kangaroo Court: More's trial. Witnesses who could help him are conveniently out of the country. The evidence against him is false, and done so for a very obvious bribe (Rich's job as Attorney General for Wales which is announced to the whole court). But the real clincher is when Cromwell intimidates the jury enough to not consider the evidence but deliver a guilty verdict right then and there.
  • Karma Houdini: The two-faced, power-hungry Richard Rich, who (according to the epilogue) eventually becomes Lord Chancellor and lives a long, prosperous life before dying of old age decades later.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: A few years after the events of the play (as stated in the epilogue), Henry VIII has Thomas Cromwell executed for treason, meeting the same fate that his machinations inflicted on Sir Thomas More.
    • Cromwell foreshadows this with "If I bring about More's death... then, I plant my own, I think."
  • Literary Allusion Title: From Robert Whittington's Vulgaria (1520):
    More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness, and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.
  • Loss of Identity: Averted. Sir Thomas makes it clear, though, that if he had consented to swear a false oath, this would have been his inevitable fate. Richard Rich arguably falls victim to it, though we do not really see the effects onscreen.
  • Minion with an F in Evil: Norfolk. He's one of More's closest friends, but he's forced to join the conspiracy agaist him because Henry wishes it.
  • Neutrality Backlash: Much of More's tragedy revolves around this. He does not likes the idea of creating the Church of England, Henry will probably behead him if he is a nay-sayer, so he just steps out of the way and keeps mum… and everybody on Henry's side decides that More, living or dead, needs to be removed as an obstacle all the same.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: It's implied in the play that reason for the Oath of Supremacy is because More wouldn't go to Henry and Anne's wedding.
  • Nice to the Waiter: More to his household staff, even Matthew who is easily bribed to give information about his master to his enemies. When he has to let them go, he makes a point of finding new places for all of them.
  • Number Two: Wolsey, More, and Cromwell all serve this postion to Henry during the play. Neither of them lasts very long though as Henry is a very fickle and impatient monarch.
  • Obviously Evil: Cromwell. Even before he actually appears the More Family is greatly alarmed by the news he's become Wolsey's secretary.
  • Off with His Head!: Sir Thomas (with the aid of a Gory Discretion Shot, of course).
  • One-Steve Limit: Five of the historical figures presented in the play were named Thomas; to avoid confusion, the play mentions only Thomas More's first name, while Cromwell, Wolsey, Cranmer and Norfolk are referred to only by their surnames or titles.
  • Open Secret: Everyone knows Henry wants to divorce Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn.
  • Opinion Flip-Flop: Roper starts the play as Lutheran, then by the end of Act I he's a Catholic. This is something of a family trait; Will's father was noted by More as "always swimming against the stream."
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: The normally jovial and pleasant Henry explodes in anger when More refuses to change his opinion on the royal divorce, colouring all their further interactions with a vaguely threatening atmosphere.
    Henry: Thomas, touching this matter of my divorce... Have you thought of it since we last spoke?
    Thomas: Of little else, Your Grace.
    Henry: (beginning to smile) Then you see your way clear to me?
    Thomas: That you should put away Queen Catherine, sire? Alas, as I think of it, I see so clearly that I cannot come with Your Grace, that my endeavour is not to think of it at all.
  • The Paragon Always Rebels: Before Henry VIII split with Rome over the matter of his divorce, he was a devoted Catholic. As mentioned by More and Cromwell in Act II, he wrote a theological book called In Defence of the Seven Sacraments, for which the Pope named him "Defender of the Faith".
  • Popularity Power: More is a well regarded as a philosopher, scholar, statesman, and a honest man all across Europe. It's why Henry desperately wants his approval for his divorce. However More is not popular enough to be spared the Tower.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Cromwell invokes this when he proclaims himself a mere "administrator" who "merely do[es] things" to affect the King's will. It's shown to be a rather blatant lie, though, as Cromwell is exceedingly ambitious and does a poor job of hiding it. It's probable that Cromwell sincerely has Nothing Personal against More, but neither does he have any scruples about disposing of him.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: After More is found guilty of treason, and with nothing to lose he finally speaks his mind about Henry's separation with Rome. He angrily denounces Henry's actions as illegal, as Church Immunity from the State is promised in both Magna Carta and the Coronation Oath, and that the real reason he's on trial is not for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy but for refusing to recognize the marriage.
  • Riches to Rags: After More resigns as Chancellor, he has to let go of his household staff because he can't afford them any longer. Lady Alice is not very happy about the arrangement.
  • The Rival: Cromwell wants to replace More as Henry's favorite advisor. He eventually succeeds
  • Rules Lawyer: More as a lawyer and later a judge is an expert in law, which works to his advantage. He knows if he openly states his opinions on why he won't swear to the Oath he'll be charged with treason. But if he remains silent on the subject all Henry and Cromwell can do is lock him up in the Tower. Sadly he didn't count on Rich commiting perjury to get him beheaded.
  • Rule of Symbolism: A woman tries to bribe More with a silver cup to rule in her favor at court. More being an honest judge gives it to Rich, in an attempt to teach him about corruption and bribery. Eventually Rich, throws his lot in with Cromwell because he's promises Rich a postion at court, More does not.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: William Roper is willing to do this, but Sir Thomas More is not, as shown in this exchange:
    William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
    Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
    William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
    Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!
  • Sinister Minister:
    • Cardinal Wolsey who is openly corrupt, scheming and devious.
    • Archbishop Cranmer is much less abrasive but is firmly in Henry's camp and willingly conspires against More.
  • Smart People Know Latin: Henry tests how smart Meg is by conversing with her in Latin. Her Latin is better and Henry is a bit miffed but he doesn't make a big deal out of it.
  • Snark Knight: Much of More's humour takes this form, even cleverly disguising it as Self-Deprecation when targeted at the King himself:
    More: Then I will tell you my true opinion. [of Henry's latest musical composition]
    Henry: (disconcerted) Well?
    More: To me it seemed — delightful.
    Henry: Thomas. I chose the right man for Chancellor!
    More: I should in fairness add that my taste in music is reputedly deplorable.
    Henry: Your taste in music is excellent. It exactly coincides with my own!
  • Social Climber:
    • Wolsey is mentioned to be a "butcher's son" and Cromwell is mentioned to be a "farrier's son"; both have managed to work their way to positions of power and prestige at Court.
    • Rich too, but he tries too hard, which is why he gets constantly snubbed until Cromwell takes him under his wing.
  • The Starscream: Cromwell starts off as Wolsey's secretary, but he curries favor with the King when Wolsey becomes disgraced and moves up in the Royal Court until he ends up living in Hampton Court, the residence of his former master. Henry VIII at one point calls him a jackal with teeth who only follows him because he's his tiger, but by the end he doesn't seem to mind this.
  • Succession Crisis: Why all this is happening in the first place — Henry VIII wants a male heir, and wife #1 (Catherine of Aragon) hasn't provided one. Wolsey fears that the Wars of the Roses (Yorkist Wars) will start up again without one.
  • Take a Third Option:
    • King Henry choosing to split from the Catholic Church.
    • Sir Thomas' decision to side publicly neither with the Reformers nor the Catholics and to remain silent about Henry's choice.
    • In successive scenes, Cromwell and Chapuys insist "If he's against Spain/Cromwell, he's with us. There's no third alternative." More is bent on showing there is.
  • Take That!: More, after he learns that Richard Rich committed perjury against him in exchange for being named Attorney General for Wales.
    Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world... but for Wales?
  • Teeth Clenched Team Work: Norfolk and Cromwell. The two hate each other, and are only working together because the King wishes it (if Norfolk had his way he wouldn't even be part of the Conspiracy against More).
  • Tempting Fate: "There'll be no new Chancellors while Wolsey lives."
  • Throw the Dog a Bone:
    • During More's trial Henry is still offering him a chance to take the Oath and save himself.
    • Norfolk gets charged with treason somewhere down the line, but Henry dies before he can sign the death warrant.
  • To Be Lawful or Good: The central conflict for More is whether to defer to the king as head of state, or follow the morals of his religion. (He firmly chooses his moral convictions, but he's savvy enough about the law to make this choice hard for everybody else.)
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Cromwell to Rich and more seriously to the King himself.
  • Turn Coat: Richard Rich (against More), Thomas Cromwell (against Wolsey), and, because he's being forced by Henry, the Duke of Norfolk against More.
  • Un-person: More after he resigns as Chancellor. Even the boatmen on the Thames won't give him a ride home.
  • We Used to Be Friends:
    • Henry and More. Eventually their friendship ends because More won't support Henry in his efforts for a divorce. Even then they both have some affection for each other: More still considers himself the King's servant, and Henry gives More chance after chance to take the Oath and save himself.
    • More and Rich. Their friendship ends when Rich pathetically begs More for a postion at Court. More steadfastly refuses. Only then More becomes aware of how much influnce Cromwell has over his young friend.
  • With Us or Against Us: There's no arguing with Henry VIII. Nor is it possible to just keep quiet and not say anything about the King's plans one way or the other; Henry will have an endorsement, or else.
  • You Have Failed Me: When Wolsey can't secure a divorce Henry charges him with treason, but he dies before he can even stand trial, or make it to the Tower.
  • You Talk Too Much!: Roper is very open about his opinions (which he changes often) to point where More has to tell him to shut it before he gets accused of treason.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Wolsey is well aware that if he can't secure a divorce for Henry his days as Chancellor are over.

Tropes added by the 1966 film include:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The subplot with the Spanish Ambassador was dropped, and some scenes were trimmed. Bolt himself wrote the screenplay.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The film does add several brief scenes of exposition to make up for the Common Man's absence: Wolsey's death, Henry's wedding, Parliament voting on the Act of Succession.
  • Adaptational Heroism: The Duke of Norfolk is not the judge in More's trial (being replaced by a trio of judges) but merely a spectator instead.
  • And Starring: Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More.
  • Blade-of-Grass Cut: Close-up of flowers and bugs on the leaves at the end, as More is standing on the executioner's block.
  • The Cameo: Vanessa Redgrave makes a cameo as Anne Boleyn, during the wedding.
  • Decomposite Character: The Common Man was deemed too theatrical for a film, and is decomposed into his various separate roles, with one, Sir Thomas' servant Matthew, retaining a little of his function as commentator.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Cromwell gets one when he politely shows in More to see Wolsey, then is seen eavesdropping on their conversation, proving he's loyal only to himself.
  • Hot Consort: Anne Boleyn (in the minute or so we see her, anyway).
  • Karma Houdini: "Richard Rich became Chancellor of England...and died in his bed."
  • Large Ham: King Henry. During his attempt to get More's endorsement, he's basically shouting the entire time. Even the other characters notice it, and are listening at the window. Or away from the window, given the volume.
  • Oh, Crap!: A subtle one, but More is not happy, when he sees that Cromwell is now part of Henry's entourage.
  • Offscreen Karma: Various villains conspire to have Thomas More unjustly executed for treason. The film's narrator gives us their subsequent fates:
    Cromwell was beheaded for high treason five years after More. The Archbishop was burned at the stake. The Duke of Norfolk should have been executed for high treason, but the King died of syphilis the night before. Richard Rich became Chancellor of England and died in his bed.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Anne's scene has her in an ermine-trimmed dress.
  • Seasonal Baggage: The passage of time while Thomas More is locked up in the Tower of London is illustrated by a shot out of the window of his cell in summer, then the same shot but with winter snow, then the same shot in springtime.
  • Smash to Black: With the thud of the executioner's axe that lops off More's head. Then a static shot of a castle for the brief epilogue and credits.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: at the end of the film, a voiceover explains what happens in the next few years (for most of the characters, things get worse).

Alternative Title(s): A Man For All Seasons