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A Man for All Seasons – Robert Bolt

Robert Bolt’s book is a timeless classic with profound lessons for the present. Ever since I first came across it as a schoolboy, I have taken great pleasure in reading and rereading this book.

Robert Bolt bases his work on the story of the English King Henry VIII. In 1509, Henry VIII married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Spain, thus strengthening England’s political alliance with Spain. The Pope granted Henry an exemption from Catholic law, thus allowing the marriage between him and Catherine.

However, the couple was unable to produce an heir or a male child. Henry then sought to have the Catholic Church cancel his marriage to Catherine, who “was as barren as a brick”, to allow him to marry Anne Boleyn, with whom he was now in love. Citing Leviticus 18, he thundered that his marriage was wrong in the eyes of God, and that his failure to produce a male heir was a punishment for this transgression of church scripture.

‘Son after what she has borne me, Thomas, all dead at birth, or dead within a month; I have never seen the hand of God so clearly in anything… I have a daughter, she is a good girl, a well-dressed girl -But I don’t have a son.’

When Pope Clement VII refused to ‘dispense with his dispensation’ and allow the divorce, Henry replaced the Pope’s adviser, Cardinal Wolsey, with Sir Thomas More as Lord Chancellor of England. The King tried to get the Chancellor’s support for his divorce, but More, despite Henry’s incessant and even desperate exhortations, violently opposed it.

Henry’s ax man Cromwell’s solution to More’s obstinacy was pressure. He believed that More was just a man and that every man had a price. So he started collecting all the information he could find on him. He is the main conspirator against Moro. He stalks and torments More with glee. One can almost see his smirk at him when he criticized him:

I accuse you of great ingratitude. I remind you of many benefits graciously granted and poorly received. I say that no king of England had or could have so wicked a servant or so treacherous a subject as you.

Through cunning and coercion, Cromwell managed to make even members of More’s own house his accomplices. Meanwhile, Henry passed legislation to undermine the authority of the Catholic Church in England. When Crammer authorized Henry’s divorce and remarriage, Henry was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Then, in 1534, Parliament enacted the Act of Supremacy, which established Henry as the head of the Church in England and severed the authority of the Pope.

Hearing this, More resigned as Lord Chancellor. Parliament passed another act, this time requiring subjects to swear an oath to King Henry’s supremacy in England over the Church and to the validity of their divorce and remarriage. More was imprisoned for refusing to take the oath.

Cromwell has been courting Rich, a Machiavellian character who was blinded by ambition. Giving him the post of Attorney General for Wales in Rich gives false testimony at More’s trial. In the end, More was found guilty of high treason and sent to the gallows.

Thomas More is the tragic hero of the story. He was a highly regarded lawyer, staunch Christian and devout Catholic. He was erudite, eloquent and with a fund of wit. He was a big family with friends in both low and high places: including the king. His fame is mainly due to the correctness of the principles he pursued and the sincerity with which he expressed them. It is as if he was aware of his role in English life and what his actions meant for human history.

Because of her holiness, it was necessary for the king to consent to the divorce. It was as if Henry were tortured by More’s unwavering devotion to principle and virtue: his vice revealed by More’s virtue. Although the king believed that his word was law, More not only respected the laws of the land, but also believed that there was a part of himself that he would not allow the king to rule over. This was a sin for Henry, and as was wretchedly common at the time, the reward of the challenge was the tower with its bloodstained scaffolding.

There are great similarities between Thomas More and Sophocles’ Antigone. Both characters are symbols of rebellion against a tyrant. Henry V111 and Kreon are embodiments of absolute power that brooked no opposition. We are repelled and even disgusted by their dark designs. In any case, we cheer them on as they crash against the rock of justice and on their way to annihilation.

The eloquence of More and Antigone reveals the wickedness of their rulers. The threat of death does not separate them from their principles and from obedience to the laws of God above the malleable laws of man. Both were not warriors, but the battle they planned to fight was to resist failing themselves and their conscience. It is this sublime feature of the character of both that prevents us from pitying them.

From the beginning of the work, the reader can almost smell the terrible fate that awaits More. However, we accompany him on his doomed journey, not with sadness but with wonder. We never ask: why does he leave his life when there is so much in it? He inspires us with his strength and we marvel at his wisdom. There are other supporting characters in the play, weak and evil men like Rich, Cranmer and Norfolk. But all his roles are there to enhance More’s.

After More has been found guilty of treason, Cromwell asks him if he has anything to say. ‘For what purpose?’ answers, more

‘What you have persecuted me are not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart. It is a long road that you have opened. Because first men will deny their hearts and now they will have no hearts. God help the people whose statesmen walk your way.

A Man For All Seasons remains a unique literary and scholarly work, with a terrific story and characters.


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