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A Man for All Seasons ()

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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+)


Robert Bolt Links:

-ESSAY: Conscience and Convenience (Glenn Arbery, February 25th, 2022, Imaginative Conservative)
    -FILM REVIEW ESSAY: … But for Wales?: ‘A Man for All Seasons’ turns 55 and still offers relevant political wisdom. (Alec Dent, The Dispatch)

Book-related and General Links:
    -A Man for All Seasons study site
    -The St. Thomas More Web Page
    -BIO: St. Thomas More (Catholic Encyclopedia)
    -Thomas More Chronology
    -King Henry VIII and His Six Wives (Tudor Royal History)
-ESSAY: St. John Fisher, St. Thomas More, & the Tudor Terror (Joseph Pearce, July 5th, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: from Short Route to Chaos  by Stephen Arons
    -ESSAY: Historical Drama and the Dimensions of Tragedy: A Man For All Seasons and The Crucible (Terry Otten)
    -ESSAY: Sir Thomas More and the Art of Dialogue (Romuald Ian Lakowski, Ph.D. Diss. U of British Columbia)
    -ESSAY: Thomas More for Our Season (Robert H. Bork, First Things)
    -FILM: Review from Flick Filosopher
    -FILM: Review (Jonathan DeMersseman, Christian Spotlight on the Movies)