Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Types of Moral Guides
In his preface, Robert Bolt addresses the apparent contradiction between Thomas More’s upright moral sense and his periodic attempts to find legal and moral loopholes. More strongly opposes Henry’s divorce, yet he hopes to avoid rather than speak out against the Oath of Supremacy. More explains his actions when he says to Will Roper, “God’s my god. . . . But I find him rather too . . . subtle.” More respects God’s law above all else, but he also does not pretend to understand it. Therefore, he sees man’s law as the best available guide to action, even if it occasionally contradicts God’s law or lets some evildoers off the hook.
In his approach to moral action, More is thoroughly pragmatic, but not, like Cromwell or Rich, at the expense of his beliefs. If More sometimes seems hypocritical, it is because he is trying to balance his respect for the law and society with his deep-rooted sense of self. He obeys the law fully, and, in the end, the prosecution has to come up with false charges to execute him.
More’s pragmatic maneuvering through society contrasts with what More calls Roper’s “seagoing” principles. Roper follows ideals instead of a his conscience or the law, and More argues that attempting to navigate high-minded ideals is akin to being lost at sea. Roper switches willy-nilly from Catholicism to Lutheranism and back again, each time utterly convinced of his own righteousness. Bolt implies that because we cannot comprehend the moral alignment of the universe, much less wrap it up in a tidy theory, we should focus our energy on improving ourselves and our society.
A Man for All Seasons focuses on the rise of Richard Rich as much as it follows the fall of Sir Thomas More. As More’s steadfast selfhood earns him a spot on the chopping block, Rich acquires more and more wealth and greater status by selling out his friend and his own moral principles. Although Rich at first bemoans his loss of innocence, by the end of the play he has no qualms about perjuring himself in exchange for a high-ranking position.
In Act One, scene eight, Rich gives Cromwell information about the silver cup in exchange for a job. Rich laments that he has lost his innocence, and the scene suggests that Rich has sold his soul to the devil. Cromwell himself evokes the devil as he craftily cajoles Rich into selling out before cramming Rich’s hand into a candle flame.
Although Act One, scene eight recalls many cautionary religious tales about the seductive powers of the devil, Bolt does not depict Rich’s corruption to warn us that people like Rich go to hell. Rather, Rich’s corruption, set against More’s hard and fast sense of self, shows the damage Rich has done to his own life. Rich has sacrificed the goodness of his own self, which the play argues is the only thing for which life is worth living.
More main ideas from A Man for All Seasons
Sir Thomas More lived the type of life that is foreign to many readers. More’s actions were all based upon two things, his conscience and God. When More is being pressured into signing the oath by Norfolk in the name of fellowship, he replies by saying, ” And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me for fellowship?”(77). He adheres to his philosophy and conscience, knowing that he will inevitably be executed. One who is reading this may reply by thinking More’s decision was asinine. The reader may believe that life is the greatest value to man, and to place anything above it would be asinine. More’s behavior was bizarre even to his own time period. His daughter, Margaret, pleaded for him to sign the oath, “Then say the words of the oath and in your heart think otherwise”(81). Her father could not morally be satisfied by this. More believed that when an oath is taken, one is placing his pledging his self and soul. ” When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. And if he opens his fingers then- he needn’t hope to find himself again”(81).
On the other hand, Richard Rich’s actions were not based upon conscience or morality. He would sacrifice his friend’s life in order to receive a job offer. After Rich testifies, and More learns that Rich was appointed Attorney-General for Wales, he is full of disgust and disbelief when he says, ” For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the world…..But for Wales!”(92). Rich can be portrayed as the lowest of life forms. More implies that Rich abandoned his conscience to have a title, which in the whole scheme of things is really insignificant. On that day of judgment, his office will have been long forgotten. It is a man’s actions during life which determines his direction after life. Rich, among the other corrupt men of the state and church, did not look beyond this world, but only viewed what his present status was. His greed led him to turn down the opportunity to have a decent and honest job as a teacher, because he wanted to be exposed to the bribery of a judicial position, the same bribery More wanted to leave. As Norfolk exclaimed of More, “When was there last a Chancellor whose possessions after three years in office totaled only one hundred pounds and a gold chain”(58). If Rich was given the chance, the total of bribes he would receive would greatly exceed that number.
Thomas More and Richard Rich represent the two extreme boundaries on the spectrum of behavior. More is the ultimate ideal man, and Rich is the example of extreme immorality. While many readers will not fit into either of these categories, it is important to know where one stands. One must envision the range which these two characters set, and scale oneself somewhere between the two. The reader may then try to make inferences into his/her own actions, and attempt to determine why he/she acts. The reader now has some premise from which to view his own actions. These characters provide a convention which sets fixed positions, or denominators, which can be used to measure one’s morality in his/her actions. In life, insights into one’s actions can only be gained by seeing and understanding the actions of others through a different point of view. By understanding someone else, one is enabled to compare himself/herself to that person. Literature facilitates this by giving the reader an omniscient view of the characters’ actions. These characters may often be archetypes of extreme behavior, as in A Man for All Seasons. These characters allow the reader to turn the kaleidoscope on his/her life.
Bolt, Robert. A Man for All Seasons. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1962.(58,77,81,92)