A Man for All Seasons

A Man for All Seasons Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Robert Bolt

Robert Bolt was born to a middle class family in the North of England. As a young man he fought in World War II as a member of the Royal Air Force, and after returning home he trained as a teacher and began to write. During the 1950s Bolt wrote several radio plays for the BBC, some of which he would then adapt into stage plays. He had his first commercial success with the 1956 play, The Critic and the Heart, and then again in 1960 with the success of two plays, A Man For All Seasons and The Tiger and the Horse. During the 1950s and 60s Bolt was a member of the Communist Party, for which he was briefly sent to prison. However, this seemed to have little effect on his career, and he continued to write plays into the 1970s, as well as several critically acclaimed screenplays including Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.
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Historical Context of A Man for All Seasons

Understanding the historical moment at which A Man For All Seasons takes place is essential to understanding the plot and stakes of the play. The action covers roughly six years, from Thomas More’s appointment as Lord Chancellor in 1529 to his death in 1535, but requires knowledge of England from even a few years before that. Henry VIII was an English King who came to power in 1509 after the death of his older brother. He wanted to marry his brother’s widow, Catherine, but that was against accepted Biblical teachings, and so he sent a special request to the Pope, asking for his marriage to be legitimized. The Pope agreed, and Henry and Catherine were married. Unfortunately, although Catherine had many children, she also had many miscarriages, and never gave birth to a son. Henry wanted a male heir, and by the mid-1520s was carrying on an affair with Anne Boleyn, who promised that if he married her she would give birth to a boy. The Catholic Church would not allow him to divorce Catherine, so Henry decided to separate England from the Catholic Church and install himself, instead of the Pope, as the head of the church. Although this would have been unthinkable even 15 years earlier, England’s separation from the Catholic Church occurred during the Protestant Reformation, a period in history during which many people become dissatisfied with the Church and created their own, new branches. Henry passed the Act of Supremacy, which declared that he was the head of the church. Most of Parliament and the nobility signed it, but Thomas More would not. This sets into motion the events of the play, which deal with More’s refusal to acknowledge the new Church of England.

Other Books Related to A Man for All Seasons

This is one of the few literary works to focus on Thomas More himself, but many other plays and novels investigate the same time period and the royal court during the reign of King Henry VIII. Henry VIII, a history play by Shakespeare first performed in 1613, covers the same time period as A Man For All Seasons, although More is not a character. Hilary Mantel’s historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies follow the life of Thomas Cromwell, in which More features as a secondary character. Of course, More’s own writings also provide insight to his character, and many of his lines in the play are taken directly from his own prose. His most famous work is Utopia, published in 1516. Robert Bolt also writes in a style related to that of Berthold Brecht. Both men were interested in showing that theatre was a performance, and not a perfect depiction of events, and they tried hard to provoke self-reflection in the audience. Some of Brecht’s most famous plays are Mother Courage and Her Children, Life of Galileo, The Threepenny Opera, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
Key Facts about A Man for All Seasons
  • Full Title: A Man For All Seasons
  • When Written: 1950s
  • When Published: 1960
  • Genre: Historical drama
  • Setting: London in the 1530s
  • Climax: The trial of Thomas More for treason
  • Antagonist: King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell

Extra Credit for A Man for All Seasons

Stage and Screen. Robert Bolt was arguably more famous as a screenwriter than as a playwright. He wrote Lawrence of Arabia, and won two Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay, one of which was for his adaptation of his own play, A Man For All Seasons.

First Drafts. A Man For All Seasons was originally a radio play written for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) which aired in 1954.