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KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
A Man for All Seasons is set in the Reformation Period of Britain. The time was also considered to be part of the Renaissance. The time was from 1529 through 1535. It was during the reign of King Henry VIII, the second Tudor King of England (reigned 1509-1547).
The Sixteenth Century (the 1500’s) was an exciting time. Much was happening. The world, including Britain, was changing quickly. People were thinking and sharing new ideas. Examples of this sharing were the visits Erasmus, a Dutch humanist and writer, made to Sir Thomas More. Johannes Gutenberg had invented the printing press around 1450. Christopher Columbus had reached America in 1492. Michelangelo was still alive. Leonardo DaVinci had died in 1519.
Sir Thomas More's residence, where some of the action takes place, was in Chelsea. Chelsea is a district of London. Hampton Court, where other action takes place was the king’s residence. It too is in the area of London, on a bend of the Thames River.
Sir Thomas More
Sir Thomas More is the protagonist, or main character. His refusal to affirm the Act of Supremacy making King Henry VIII the supreme head of the Church of England is the main subject of the play. The play focuses on Sir Thomas’ inability to sacrifice his moral conscience to save his life. His conscience is more important to him than life itself. But, More, in the play, is more existential than he is religious. More is definitely not eager to be a martyr. He tries not to become one by refusing to speak out against the Act of Supremacy. He also does not write anything against the Act.
More loves the world of the law. He knows that laws are what keep everyone safe. Without agreed upon laws men would have no protection. To More, only God is ranked higher than society’s laws.
The Common Man
The Common Man is a useful invention for this playwright. His characters can be looked upon as either universal or base. His characters do whatever is expedient. They “go along to get along.” They let others be concerned with right and wrong. They are concerned with what works, with “getting by.”
When he is not in a separate character, the Common Man helps set the scene for the audience. He talks to the audience directly.
Characters played by the Common Man
Matthew, the Steward
Matthew is the Common Man character that makes the most appearances. He understands his position well. He knows what he should do, what he can do, what he should not do and what he is not required to do. What he should do is the work that is required by his position in the More household. What he can do is pass on unimportant information about his employer, Sir Thomas. What he should not do is pass on secret information about Sir Thomas. What he is not required to do is alert his employer that people are making enquiries about him. He also knows that he is not very important in the eyes of his employer, who has a tendency not to see him.
The boatman is mainly concerned with making a living. More tends to not see him; similar to the way that he does not see Matthew, the steward.
The publican, who runs a tavern or pub called “The Loyal Subject,” is willing to overlook suspicious activity with the expectation that he will be making some money by serving those involved. He is not a spy, as some people who actually are spies believe he is, but rather he is just trying to make a living.
The jailer is used as a witness to trap Sir Thomas. Then, an attempt is made to use him as a paid spy in an attempt to get information on Sir Thomas. The offer of money frightens the jailer, whose main concern now is keeping out of trouble and staying alive.
The jury foreman is reluctant to take part in the trial of Sir Thomas. No good will come of it. But, he doesn’t have a choice. And, when the time comes to give the verdict, he does what is necessary to insure his safety; he says that Sir Thomas is guilty.
The headsman has only one line. By the time he does his job, we can easily guess why he beheads Sir Thomas. It is the way that he can save his own self.
The character of Richard Rich is the opposite of the character of Sir Thomas More. Rich is mostly interested in gaining riches and stature. He has no interest in listening to his conscience. He has no interest in More’s suggestion that he be a teacher. There is not enough to be gained by being a teacher, at least not enough of what he desires. He read Machiavelli’s writings and seemed to use them as a guide to how to act. He is the type of person likely to prosper during the reign of King Henry VIII. In fact, he does prosper. His fortunes rise at the same time that More loses favor with the king and the king’s men. His name, Rich, seems like a name given to the character by an author trying to label him. But, in fact, this character is based on a real person, as are the other characters in the play.