Theology vs. Philosophy in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons

Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More

Robert Bolt (no relations to Usain Bolt for as near as my research can tell) gained some fame after the success of his play A Man For All Seasons, a narrative based on the later part of Sir Thomas More’s political career.  Not only was it a success on the stage, but the radio before hand and TV as well, and of course on the silver screen as the film adaptation went onto win multiple awards.  On the surface one might assume that the book is a theological work since it pertains to the debate between Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More about who the head of the church should be, as well as the contentious interpretation of the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, but in reading the play it becomes clear that it is more a book about philosophy than theology, but touches on other matters as well.

 

Robert Bolt, author of "A Man For All Seasons".

Robert Bolt, author of “A Man For All Seasons”.

Most notable of philosophical arguments is Bolt’s apparent attack on Aristotelian concepts of binaries.  Two parties discuss More’s response to certain subjects and use Aristotelian philosophy to determine his views.  Chapuys, a representative from Catholic Spain suggest that More supports Spain, first using a flawed syllogism based on a faulty premise.  He states that all “good men… are allies of Spain” and since More is a good man, he is for Spain.  The premise that all good men support Spain is of course the flaw.  There is another flawed syllogism in the play as well.  When Norfolk concludes that More’s refusal to sign the ‘Act of Succession’ “must be” based on treasonable motivations.  More notes that it is not “must be” but rather “may be”.  A subtle difference of course, but one that does not determine guilt for More, only supposes the possibility of it.   Chapuys suggests that because More “is opposed to Cromwell”, that means that More is therefore in favour of Spain, implying that if he is not for Cromwell, then he is for Spain.  Chapuys asks his attendant: “There’s no third alternative?”  The attendant shrewdly supposes that there is not.  This binary is flawed though because it is possible that More is opposed to both Spain and Cromwell.  Norfolk and Cromwell make the same mistake.  When More speaks to Norfolk about potential troubles from supporters or Spain, Cromwell observes that More “showed himself hostile to the hopes of Spain” and draws the conclusion that because he “opposes Spain, he supports” Cromwell.  Norfolk is eager to agree, but again, they split the world up into binaries that simply do not apply.  The King has the same sentimentality, as Cromwell later asserts that the King “wants either Sir Thomas More to bless his marriage or Sir Thomas More destroyed.”  There is no room for compromise when using such binaries.

 

 

Sprinter Usain Bolt.  Not related to Robert Bolt as far as my research has been able to conclude.

Sprinter Usain Bolt. Not related to Robert Bolt as far as my research has been able to conclude.

There is also a matter of interpretation.  The death of the author as Roland Barthes would say, but the irony is that it is not what More wrote or said that is being interpreted, but rather what he didn’t write or say.  When asked to sign the ‘Act of Succession’, More refuses and remains silent on the matter.  In court Cromwell wishes to argue that the More’s silence is a denial of the King’s assertion, but More notes that “silence is not denial”.  More suggests there are instances where rather than denial, silence “gives consent”.  When Cromwell argues that “silence can, according to circumstance, speak”, More does not deny this, but rather concludes that the interpretation may vary, concluding that the “world must construe according to its wits” whilst the “Court must construe according to the law”.  More argues that there is more than one interpretation to his silence and that therefore it is not possible to convict him on anything.  To this of course the corrupt system simply responds by beheading the silent philosopher/theologian.

 

Vanessa Redgrave played both Anne Boleyn in the 1966 film adaptation of "A Man For All Seasons" and Alice, wife to Sir Thomas More in the 1988 television adaption of the play.

Vanessa Redgrave starred in the 1966 film adaptation and the 1988 television adaption of the play.

These are, for me at least, the driving forces of the play.  There is some great humour in it, and subtle nuances of language.  When Chapuy asks More if he left in agreement with Wosley, he admits only that they left amicably.  This is another instance in which More allows others to interpret his meaning without actually saying his meaning.  His thoughts are his own and he does not give them freely.  He speaks in a similar manner to: Wosley, Norfolk, Rich, Cromwell and just about anybody else who speaks to him throughout the play; even his own wife.  He will not share his thoughts with her, not because he does not trust her, but because he does not want to put her in a position where she will have to lie for him.  There are some great lines to go along with the witty dialogue.  Bolt writes: “Better a live rat than a dead lion” in one passage.  I’m not sure I agree with this, but there are a great many people who live this maxim every day, and there is another passage where More asks: “has Eve run out of apples?”  This is a loaded statement as well ripe for interpretation.

 

The beautiful Susannah York who plays Maragaret, daughter to Sir Thomas More in the 1966 film adaptation of the play.

The beautiful Susannah York who plays Maragaret, daughter to Sir Thomas More in the 1966 film adaptation of the play.

The characters are perhaps a little underdeveloped.  More is the most interesting character, but he is also enigmatic.  He is motivated by his faith and personal theology, yet will not speak on the matter, and so we do not know his motivations.  His wife and daughter are both strong female characters, but the men for the most part are one dimensional.  Cromwell and Wosley are both opportunistic, and though Norfolk is torn on the matter of More who he believes to be a good man, he is not nearly as interesting.  Rich is an interesting character and one who seems to represent the typical person, more so than the character titles “Common Man”, but in the final scene we come to be disappointed in him for his perjury.

 

 

Sir Thomas More knew that that Catholic church would be responsible for this outfit, so he knew it was an organization worth dying for.

Sir Thomas More knew that that Catholic church would be responsible for this outfit, so he knew it was an organization worth dying for.

The work is interesting.  It serves to reaffirm those who have a strong understanding of the flaws of Aristotelian philosophy and syllogisms, and has some witty dialogue.  There is a preface which serves more as a history lesson and can be skipped by anybody who already knows the history of the narrative behind the play.  The story was also played out in the BBC program The Tudors with compelling performances and writing.  I’d likely feel more compelled to sympathise with More if he wasn’t dying for an organization as corrupt as the Catholic church.  All the Catholic church has been good for in my book is designing the uniform for Catholic school girls.  It is perhaps ironic that the church would be responsible for designing such a titillating costume when they promote chastity.  Fucking perverts.  And I’m not sure that the Catholic-school girl costume design makes up for all the Muslims killed during the crusades or the children who have been molested by priests and other church officials. 

 

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Another version of the Catholic School uniform.  This is not exactly how they look, but it's not too far off.

Another version of the Catholic School uniform. This is not exactly how they look, but it’s not too far off.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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