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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
The plot of A Man For All Seasons follows historical events in the Sixteenth Century. Robert Bolt, the author, describes this part of history to his twentieth century, now twenty-first century, audience. His aim is to illustrate some characteristics of one of the characters, Sir Thomas More. Bolt has strong opinions about how traits of Sir Thomas would improve people in this era. He wrote with the hope that we would learn by example.
The play is divided into two acts. The first act acquaints us with the situation in which Sir Thomas More finds himself. We learn of the political climate as well as how he prefers to handle himself in it. In the Second Act, which commences approximately two years after the end of the First Act, the pace of action speeds up. Sir Thomas goes from being forbidden to speak or write on certain subjects to being sentenced to life in prison and, finally, to being beheaded in the second act.
Bolt uses a character that he calls The Common Man to help the audience to understand what he wants them to understand. The audience is supposed to relate to The Common Man, whose characteristics are common to us all.
Bolt felt that we in modern times do not see ourselves as unique individuals. Rather, we pin labels on ourselves, the same labels that are also pinned on other people. By giving us a glimpse of another way to live, he hoped that we would be inspired.
King Henry VIII wants whatever he desires. This includes his desire for an untroubled conscience. And, it includes a son to whom he can someday pass on his kingdom. Henry's daughter would, later in the sixteenth century, successfully rule England, but in Henry's time, England had only been successfully ruled by men, not women. It was commonly thought that a son was needed to avoid war and upheaval after Henry's death. The land had, within memory, been through a war lasting thirty years and no one wanted a similar time in the future. Henry was eager to do whatever was required to get what he wanted. What seemed to be required was a dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his Queen. Dissolution of his marriage required the approval of the Pope in Rome.
Cardinal Wolsey, the Chancellor, wanted Sir Thomas to help the effort to get the Pope's approval by signing a letter to the Pope, but Sir Thomas declined. Cardinal Wolsey was unable to accomplish the task and soon died in disrepute. Henry then made Sir Thomas the Chancellor. This put pressure on Sir Thomas to accomplish the task.
Several years have passed in the years between Act One and Act Two. Sir Thomas is no longer Chancellor. He has been trying to remain quiet and keep his opinions regarding the King's marriage and his succession to himself. Over time this becomes more difficult.
Sir Thomas is pressured and investigated over and over regarding his views. He ends up in jail for life. That is supposedly the worst sentence he can be given as long as he remains silent.
After a while, More is tried in a sham of a trial and found guilty of treason. He is then beheaded.