Author: Robert Bolt
Type: Fiction, play
I read it: November 2014
In Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, a character called the Common Man takes various bit roles and helps guide the audience through the drama. At one point he introduces the man of the title as:
Sir Thomas More, a scholar and, by popular repute, a saint. His scholarship is supported by his writings; saintliness is a quality less easy to establish. But from his willful indifference to realities which were obvious to quite ordinary contemporaries, it seems all too probable that he had it.
Here is the central idea that Bolt wanted to explore, that perhaps More had some rare quality of a bygone era: the ability to stand up for his core being under immense pressure. He says as much in the preface, commenting how a person’s word of honor and important beliefs are not as tied up into the very being of the person as they may once have been. That is, you can find humans malleable and easily shifted off their course. Was Thomas More above this?
More’s course is to not be persuaded to give approval to King Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine, which goes against the Catholic church. More wants to be true to his king, the law of the land, and mostly to his god, but finds these waters tricky to navigate. He seems proud in his defiance (though he won’t articulate his treason) yet he also claims himself not to be a martyr. Bolt seems to paint more as a kind of academic Job, suffering the slow loss of his material goods and the welfare of his family due to his faithful principles and his absolute certainty he will meet his god face to face with a clear conscience.
I suppose I see the value in structuring a play based on a historical figure who stuck to his guns, but it’s difficult to see More as anything but delusional. He thinks the law is so ironclad that he cannot imagine himself to be guilty in its eyes–and he is astonished when they re-write the laws around him. “They” refers to the small cadre of King’s men mostly led by Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is written as a villain, described alternately as “The King’s Ear” (by himself), a jackal (by the king), and a pragmatist and metaphorical plumber (by More). Cromwell is tasked with persuading More to give an oath in favor of the king right up until his execution, but can’t make it happen. More is stuck in his ways but the times are leaving him behind. As Cromwell puts it, “The situation rolls forward in any case.”
And so rolls Thomas More’s head. In this play he gets the sympathies of the audience when he is accused of electing himself a hero but then goes on to say, “Perhaps we must stand fast a little–even at the risk of being heroes.” His wife Alice, finally coming to romantic acceptance of her husband’s fate, admits “I understand you’re the best man that I ever met or am likely to.” And these examples clinch the fact that this version of Thomas More stands in stark opposition to the version of him in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, in which he verbally abused his family and was a cold, strict zealot (if well-learned).
Could the real Thomas More please identify himself? I find Robert Bolt’s version hard to buy, but his play about a man coming to terms with himself while the world turns against him is a smart and deep work. As I learn more about More, I grasp him as a true believer whose sense of self hardened so much around structure and civility that he became inseparable from those concepts. Because his intellect elevated him above the common masses, he had a hand in running his own society. But his self-righteousness would not let himself doubt the foundations he built up in his own mind, and he painted himself into dark corners when he grasped the most dangerous parts of faith, such as absolute belief. At some point he came to absolutely believe in himself. Bolt seems to find this virtuous, while Mantel shows that it has a sinister edge. I find More a sad, fascinating figure best studied at the distance of time. I’m entirely unconvinced of his saintliness, or even his decency. But I’m mostly just glad I didn’t have to live during his decades.