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A Man for All Seasons: A Play in Two Acts
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43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on August 1, 2002
Format: Paperback
A Man for All Seasons has long been my favorite, whether in written form, stage play, or motion picture. The story is fairly simple, another angle on the drama of Henry VIII. Sir Thomas More is a deeply religious man, much troubled by the king's break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England, naming the king as head of the church (directly contravening the idea that Christ is ultimately head of the church, indeed, Catholics believe the church to espoused to Christ). In an attempt to keep the peace, and his neck, More resigns his office and refuses to make any statement about the issue of the break with Rome or the king's divorce what-so-ever, even to his own wife.

Unfortunately, it would appear that while the king doesn't want to follow the rules, he also doesn't want a bad conscience. This requires him to get the 'blessing' of someone known to be reputable on the subject, so that his conscience may rest at ease. By circumstance of who he is, More is chosen. A document is drawn up in the Parliament, rather craftily, to which subjects of the king are required to swear.
Upon refusing to swear to this document More is thrown into jail. He will neither make a statement about his thoughts on the document, nor make explanation for refusing to swear. In More's thinking, he has been forced to choose between his bodily life and his immortal soul. Eventually More is tried and convicted of High Treason, carrying the sentence of death.
The play is wonderfully crafted and does an excellent job of being subtle and emotional at the same time. It is the essence of a morality play. When push comes to shove, and egos, life, inheritances are on the line, where will you fall?
Some criticize this play for not being historically accurate in some matters. I toss these criticisms aside with two short arguements 1.In some matters, such as More's feelings and private dealings with the king, we will never know the historical truth. 2.Most important to remember, it is a play, not a history text. It owes no wage to historical accuracy.
This play is a very easy read. The language is simple enough. My only suggestion is that those readers who are not Catholic may want to do a tiny bit of research about basic Catholic theology concerning marriage and divorce, in order to understand some of the motivations in the play.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on April 13, 2002
Format: Paperback
This book is the essential companion to the movie. Or do I have it backwards?
So, to what lengths will a man go to keep his honor? Is everything for sale? This is the story of conscience over expediency, which is a message we need right here, right now, especially in DC. The problem with politics and principles is perennial, but it has become a bit more exacerbated with the war on terrorism.
We rally behind More since he stands up for conscious. It is an interesting dilemma, since we might criticize him for not being more vocal or proactive in his stand against the king, but More does say that God made "man to serve him wittingly, in the tangle of his mind! If he suffers us to fall to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand our tackle as best we can. . . But it's God's part, not our own, to bring ourselves to that extremity! Our natural business lies in escaping!" (p. 126)
The best plays are the ones that make you think yeas after you experience them. This is Bolt's spell, and we can never escape.
This is almost a perfect play. The only flaw is that More ends up with the best one liners, while the antagonists Henry VIII and Cromwell have lifeless lines without the wit and sparkle speeches that Bolt have given to More.
One of the intriguing aspects of this play is all the subplots, or rather, ripples across the ocean of events. These sub-plays augment an already powerful story, and help bring more light and detail to the story.
One ripple is Richard Rich. He is a young man with burning ambition. More wisely counsels him to become a teacher, instead of involving himself in affairs of court. Rich ignores the counsel, gets caught up in the sausage-machine of state, and eventually perjures himself in More's trial. More did not have a price; Rich's price was Wales.
Henry VIII is another backgound mover, and the driver of the events in the play. He wants an heir, but at what price? The dynastic wars had just been settled, and his line was established, but he had no heir. Harry VIII was a bit of a playboy like Harry V, but Harry V eventually grew up. Henry VIII went to every extraordinary extreme to have an heir, from marrying his wife, to divorcing his wife, establishing a new church to soothe his conscience, and finally sanction the death of his one and only loyal friend. His price was his pride.
Another sub-ripple was the romance between Margaret More and William Roper. Thomas was, of course, a staunch Catholic, but Roper was a new Lutheran, and there was religious tension. Thomas forbade his daughter Margaret from marrying Roper until he returned to Catholicism.
Two characters were almost ignored in the play: Wolsey and Alice More, but I guess that you can't have everything in a two-act play. Sigh!
The 1966 film adaptation left out another sub-plot Senor Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador. Since Katharine was from Aragon, Catholic Spain had quite an interest in having the first marriage remain in tact.
Aside from reading a history book on the man and the time, I would recommend the companion classic of Shakespeare's play "Henry VIII," which tells how Wolsey accidentally got Anne Bolyn and Henry VIII together at a dinner party, and how Wolsey fell out of favor with the King. Surprisingly, Shakespeare only mentions More once (III.ii.468), but we understand the edgy politics during Shakespeare's day.
Bolts quick wit and ability to compress complex ideas into compact catchphrases, what are called "bumper-sticker" lines in the film industry. I would like to read more of his plays.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2001
Format: Paperback
I am currently reading A Man For All Seasons as a school project, and I am enjoying it more than any other book that I have read in school. This play is an incredible work of art that thoroughly and accurately depicts the personality and moral values of Saint Thomas More, the man who was "the King's good servant, but God's first". Sir Thomas More became King Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor under one condition: that he be left out of "The King's Great Matter", which, if you didn't know, was the King's conflict with the Pope over his desired anullment from Catherine of Aragon. However, Henry is not satisfied with this, and he is determined to have a blessing of his marriage to Anne Boleyn from Sir Thomas. More, however, is a devout Catholic, and he believes that Henry's anullment from Catherine was not valid, and his morals will not allow him to bless the King's marriage. In hopes of forcing More to agree with him, the King administers an Oath claiming that he is the supreme head of the Church in England, and that Anne Boleyn's children would be the heirs to the throne. Sir Thomas refuses to sign the Oath, and, after spending almost 2 years in the Tower of London, is beheaded. A Man For All Seasons is a great play, for it really shows the reader the kind of man that Sir Thomas was. The other characters are also well written (particularly Sir Thomas's daughter, Margaret). If you are a drama fan, history buff, or someone who likes to read books with great moral substance, A Man For All Seasons is the book for you.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 1999
Format: Paperback
Please don't make students read this book! Being part of an assignment is enough to ruin any literary work for the reader, no matter how great. I first read this play while in Grade 10 (two years ago), without being forced, and I relished every word from beginning to end. It was so engaging and enjoyable that I couldn't put it down, and I actually laughed aloud and cried several times while reading it after classes and on the bus. This play got me interested in Renaissance English history, and I have learned a lot since then which I can relate to characters and events in A Man for All Seasons.
There is the criticism that Bolt made Sir Thomas unrealistically good and considerably more tolerant than he actually was, but Bolt admits this himself in the introduction included with the edition I read. In this play, historic events and of Sir Thomas More's personality are taken and molded slightly to provide a demonstration of one's man dedication to his faith and his conscience. The dialogue is brilliant, the characters are well realized (within the heroic structure for which Bolt was aiming), and--despite what some may consider a boring premise, certainly not me--the plot and issues are fascinating. It really made me think, and I've come back and read it several times when I feel like I need an idea to ponder. A marvellous play to see performed as well, especially when there is a very capable actor in the title role.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
The basic facts of this story are surely well known. When Henry VIII unexpectedly became heir to the British throne upon his brother's death, the Pope made a special dispensation to allow him to marry his brother's widow, the politically desirable Spanish princess Catherine. Later, when Queen Catherine failed to produce a male heir for King Henry and as she became increasingly plain and more deeply religious, Henry sought to have the Pope nullify the marriage for the very reason that it violated Christian law for a man to marry his brother's widow. Sir Thomas More resigned his post as Lord Chancellor of England in 1532 because of his opposition to Henry's plan. Henry having taken England out of the Catholic Church and established the Church of England with himself at its head, Anne Boleyn was crowned his new Queen in June of 1533. Henry passed the Act of Succession in March 1534, which required all who should be called upon to take an oath acknowledging the issue of Henry and Anne as legitimate heirs to the throne, and to this was added a clause repudiating "any foreign authority, prince or potentate". More was summoned on March 14, but refused to take the oath and was sent to the Tower of London. He was indicted for treason in July and at trial solicitor-general Richard Rich testified that More had denied Parliament's power to invest Henry with ecclesiastical powers. Despite More's denial of the statement and his avowal that Rich was a perjurer, he was convicted and was beheaded at Tower Hill on July 6, 1535. For his willingness to be executed rather than renounce his oath to the Pope and the Catholic Church, Thomas More became a martyr and was eventually sainted. Protestant England became the greatest nation on Earth and developed the political, religious and economic institutions upon which all successful modern nations are based.
Robert Bolt's great play presents in simple, unadorned scenes, the dilemma of a man of conscience and serves to remind us of how rare and valuable such men are in every age. Bolt's More argues that a man who will sacrifice his conscience has lost something central to his being:
When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water....and if he opens his fingers then--he needn't hope to find himself again...
And in the play's greatest passage, he argues for the centrality of the law, over and against men, in the governance of human affairs, when his family wants him to have the disloyal Rich arrested:
Wife: Arrest him!
More: For what?
Wife: He's dangerous!
Roper: For all we know he's a spy!
Daughter: Father, that man's bad!
More: There's no law against that!
Roper: There is, God's law!
More: Then let God arrest him!
Wife: While you talk he's gone!
More: And go he should, if he were the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
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!
Finally, when he is brought before the Court, More warns those assembled: "It is a long road you have opened for first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose statesmen walk your road."
[For those of us of a certain age and political persuasion, these lines will always call to mind the impassioned plea by Henry Hyde (R, IL) for the Senate to hold President Clinton answerable to the laws of the land. But then as in More's time, there were hardly any ready to withstand the leveling political wind that was blowing. No Cabinet Member or Administration employee resigned in the face of the President's misconduct and lies. No Democrat Senator voted for a single article of impeachment; all succumbed to the cult of personality. It was particularly appalling to watch men like Moynihan, Lieberman and Byrd betray every principle for which they have spoken in public life. For one awful, but thankfully brief moment, we saw the dread specter of what it's like to live in a world where the whims of men are paramount, and the rule of law a farce. Well might we, like More, ask God to help a nation where the statesmen have no hearts, where they place their masters above the law.]
In the end, Henry's actions set England upon the path to becoming a great nation and made him a world historical figure. But even, or especially, a great nation needs men like Thomas More, who stand willing to vindicate the rule of law regardless of their personal feelings and interests. More, who followed the dictates of conscience, rather than the diktats of a king, is truly one of the great men of history and remains a vital example to all mankind.
GRADE: A+
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon May 9, 2000
Format: Paperback
The exceptionally talented Robert Bolt, who wrote the very literate and memorable screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia, turns his attention in "A Man for All Seasons" to the conflict between Sir Thomas More and King Henry VIII over the question of Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn and the subsequent creation of the Church of England in order to jusify it. More believes that the marriage is not legal and that attacks on the church are not justified, and cannot make himself swear the mandated oath recognizing Henry as the head of the church in England. Since More is Chancellor and one of Henry's chief advisors, this sets the stage for that well known conflict that ends with More being beheaded.
The miracle that Bolt achieves with this play is to bring alive the conflict of ideas and principle that the mundane question of Henry's irregular marriage occasioned. This is a wordy play, but Bolt is a master of words, and there are enough pithy and memorable exchanges here to fill a book of quotations. The real historical characters were fascinating, and if Bolt has streamlined the story and simplified some of the rough spots that just serves to heighten the dramatic intensity of the inevitable tragic end. As a man of consience, More cannot renounce his faith. He is torn between serving a King to whom he owes allegiance and saving his soul, and the King gives him no out. Even after renouncing his office and refusing to make any public statement about the marriage he is hounded by the King's menions and finally imprisoned in the Tower of London.
The cast of characters that seal his fate are not - with the possible exception of Cromwell - evil men. The King is selfish but willing to forgive if More will take the oath. Richard Rich, More's former student whose perjured testimony finally condemns him, is merely venal and willing to sell his self-respect for advancement. More's best friend, who goes along just to be left alone, simply doesn't want to risk his life and title and can't understand More's stance. Even his family has trouble coming to terms with why he will not bend. Knowing from the beginning how this will all end adds a layer of complexity to the actions of those characters who try to influence More and/or benefit themselves.
Finally, to return to the language of the play, this is really great writing of a particular kind. Bolt has the ability to sum up complex arguments in a few telling phrases and to find memorable turns of speech that make actors want to say the words and audience members want to hear them. This is simply one of the best plays of its kind ever written and I can't imagine it ceasing to be performed.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 2003
Format: Paperback
This play is not about Thomas More the man, as much as it is about Thomas More as an archetype. Bolt has taken More and idealized him into almost mythical proportions. This is not difficult given that the historical reality was larger than life to start with, but those looking for insights into the real More won't find them here. The playwright was not striving for a biography. He wanted to use More as a launching point for a reflection on Being. This is in some ways a Platonic work, and in this sense, Bolt's idealization of More is entirely acceptable, and the play, entirely successful.
In a way, the play, idealized as it is, does not do the man justice. It presents Thomas More as little more than an ideologue. There is a reference to his friendship with Erasmus, but the real More was accounted one of the foremost philosophers of his time and enjoyed a moral prerogative throughout the western world that is difficult to credit in our own cynical age. The closest modern equivalent might be Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi.
The play presents him primarily as a unique man of the world. However, as a true Renaissance man, More was of considerably broader genius. He gave us the word "Utopia" and formalized the concept within western thought through his writings on this namesake perfect society. His essays may seem dated and naïve today, but this is unfair, viewing them as we do through the filter of the intervening centuries. In addition to being a lawyer, judge and Chancellor, More was a scholar, author, essayist, philosopher and minister.
But the play is concerned with none of this. It focuses on one aspect of More's character: his acute sense of Self. The person of Thomas More commands our respect, because he possesses a strength of character that we all admire, some envy, and a few hate.
But where does this strength of character come from? Strangely enough, it's not faith, in the traditional sense of the word. The playwright uses faith as More's particular moral centre because it happens to be true in More's case. But we are allowed to generalize from More's case to our own, and Bolt argues that for every man, even the nonreligious, an unshakeable sense of Self is necessary for life to be worth living. More would not cross the line drawn by his faith because, in his case, his faith defined his Being. Is there a line we would not cross? A line defined by our own core values and beliefs? Contrast More's character to that of his foil, Cromwell, who embodies his antithesis, a life hired out to considerations of 'administrative convenience'.
In the end, we are our principles. Nothing less and nothing more. If we destroy our principles, we destroy our Being. You don't have to believe in the divine or in an immortal soul to understand the thesis at the heart of A Man For All Seasons.
This is an easy play to read and just as easy to understand. For all its literary beauty and thematic potency, it achieves a level of clarity that is missing in even the great classics. For this reason, some erstwhile intellectuals dismiss it as superficial. Ignore such snobs. This play is made the more wonderful by its accessibility, even to children, and certainly to intelligent youth who could do far worse than to start out on life's journey following the example set by such a man for all seasons.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 1998
Format: Turtleback
Sir Robert Bolt's " A Man For All Seasons" is a familiar story, but Bolt's telling of it is always fresh. The motion picture version won 6 Academy Awards in 1966 including "Best Screenplay" (Bolt), "Best Actor" (Paul Scofield), Best Director (Fred Zinneman), and finally "Best Picture". The story is set against King Henry VIII's break with Rome, made necessary by his desire to divorce Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. When Sir Thomas More refused to sign the Act of Supremacy, he was brought to trial on trumped-up charges and ultimately beheaded. More had sought refuge in the letter of the law, but he was required to state his approval of the Act in an oath --an oath which would have required him to state something that he did not believe. For More, an oath was an invitation to God to act as witness and judge. In existentialist terms, the oath would have shattered his integrity, his humanity, that "...something within himself without which life is meaningless." Contrast More with the character, Lilly, of "The Grifters", a modern character who finds fewer and fewer things that she is unwilling to do. She will make any compromise to survive, including the attempted sexual seduction of her own son. In the end she kills him, and escapes the bloody crime scene in an elevator going ominously down...down...down. Both plays: "A Man For All Seasons" and "The Grifters" are about the "self" and express the Jean Paul Sartre view that "man" alone among the animals is capable of inventing himself.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2000
Format: Paperback
I am an 11th grader and i found it pretty easy to understand. The facts were brought up well organized and although i had to read the book for a research paper, it wasnt bad at all since i understood what i was reading before i read it. I recomend that people should read this book and understand why Sir Thomas More was a Martyr.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2001
Format: Paperback
I really enjoyed this play. It dealt with one of my favorite topics: history. However, despite this being a period play, Bolt wisely chose to abstain from obscure references and arcane language. It is not at all difficult to understand the play, despite its setting being 16th century England, under Henry VIII. Also, one only needs a cursory knowledge of English history to fully understand the play. If you don't know that, I'd recommend reading just a few paragraphs from an encyclopedia or text book dealing with Henry VIII's famous series of wives, divorces and beheadings and his withdrawing England from the Catholic church (known as the Act of Supremecy.)
The characters of the play, as with the actual people involved in the play, were interesting. However, I think that Bolt could have done a slightly better job in stirring the emotions of the audience at some of the key scenes, such as the last and second to last ones. Since he was dealing with such an emotionally charged topic, some of the characters could have been slightly more sympathetic.
But, overall, this is a great play, short and sweet. I'd recommend it for anyone and everyone who enjoys history.
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