Consciences are personal moral compasses that help a person tell right from wrong, but in A Man For All Seasons, private moral codes become public spectacles. King Henry’s guilty conscience over his (potentially illegitimate) first marriage causes him to demand that the public, and Thomas More, comfort him and assuage his guilt. More’s conscience, which acts as a religious compass, steers him towards his eventual death, because he cannot go against his deeply help convictions, even if doing so would calm the King and save More’s life. Conscience is linked, then, to personal integrity. More, who trusts his conscience, has great personal integrity, while Cromwell, who is more self-serving and has less personal integrity, distrusts conscience. Cromwell at one point argues that he often hears criminals talk about their consciences, suggesting that Cromwell associates any reference to personal conscience with personal guilt.
Thomas More is guided by his conscience. He is a man of great integrity, and he acts in a manner that he believes is right and just, even in the face of opposition from the King himself. More’s conscience is more important to him than his reputation, material wealth, and even his personal safety, because his conscience is linked to his religion, and disobeying his conscience would be, for More, like disobeying God. During his trial, More argues “In matters of conscience, the loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing.” Here, More is arguing that loyalty to his conscience is more important than loyalty to the King.
Further, More believes that public officials can and should be guided by their consciences. He states “I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties…they lead their country by a short route to chaos.” He sees a conscience as something solid and moral, a compass strong enough to guide a ruler in governing his country. When More refers to “public duties” he doesn’t mean the wellbeing of the people, but instead public reputation. Throughout the play More stands by his assertion that staying true to one’s own values is more important than giving in to public pressure.
More also notes that everyone has their own personal conscience, and that what may seem moral or right to one person will not necessarily seem so to another. When Norfolk pressures More to sign the act, he reasons that More should see the other people who have already signed it and “come with us, for fellowship.” More counters that “when we stand before God” Norfolk will be “sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine.” What Norfolk did doesn’t damn him, according to More, as long as his conscience allowed him to sign the act. But More’s conscience will not allow him to sign it, and therefore he will not.
Henry’s conscience, and the consciences of the people of England, are troubled by Henry’s second marriage to Anne Boleyn. Although the King and Parliament have rewritten the laws of the land and the church, lingering guilt over his first marriage and divorce weigh on Henry’s mind. Bolt notes in the prologue that Henry’s first marriage “added a bad conscience,” because it was forbidden by the Bible to marry one’s brother’s widow. The King’s desire to have More acknowledge the nullification of his marriage, then, seems to be related to his need for a clean conscience. Cromwell later states, “The King’s a man of conscience and he wants either Sir Thomas More to bless his marriage or Sir Thomas More destroyed.” This doesn’t seem much like the traditional conscience that helps a person tell right from wrong. Instead, the King’s conscience here is looking for validation. He wants More to agree with him that his conscience should be clear, which will help make it so. Cromwell and Henry are interested in their own definition of conscience. In the same scene, Cromwell uses the circular logic that “If the King destroys a man, that’s proof to the King that it must have been a bad man, the kind of man a man of conscience ought to destroy—and of course a bad man’s blessing’s not worth having.” As opposed to More, who lets his conscience guide him towards what he feels is right, Cromwell and the King use conscience as a convenient way to justify their behavior.
Thomas More’s commitment to his conscience inspires all of his actions throughout the play. In an effort to keep his conscience clean, and to adhere to his strict religious beliefs, More tries to stay true to himself in the face of external pressures. Similarly, many of King Henry’s actions are motivated by his attempts to clear his guilty conscience—he worries that his marriage to Catherine is illegitimate, and that he is sinning by remaining her husband. The King persecutes More so aggressively because he wants More’s blessing, a blessing that will clear his conscience and potentially save his soul. However, the King’s conscience is also tied to public opinion—he does not want to be seen as living in sin, and a pure conscience will lead to higher popularity among his subjects. In contrast, More’s reputation is secondary to his conscience. He doesn’t care what people think of him as long as he knows he is following his heart.
Conscience, Integrity, and Reputation ThemeTracker
Conscience, Integrity, and Reputation Quotes in A Man for All Seasons
Rich: But every man has his price!
Rich: But yes! In money too.
More: No no no.
Rich: Or pleasure. Titles, women, bricks-and-mortar, there’s always something.
Rich: Well, in suffering, certainly.
More: Buy a man with suffering?
Rich: Impose suffering, and offer him—escape.
More: Oh. For a moment I thought you were being profound.
Wolsey: It’s a devious situation.
More: There must be something simple in the middle of it. (Again this is not a moral dictum; it is said rather wistfully, as of something he is beginning to doubt)
Wolsey: I believe you believe that. You’re a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see the facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint; with just a little common sense, you could have been a statesman.
Well…I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties…they lead their country by a short route to chaos.
Cromwell: Oh no—they’ll talk about the divorce. The King will ask him for an answer.
Chapuys: He has given his answer!
Cromwell: The King will ask him for another.
Chapuys: Sir Thomas is a good son of the Church!
Cromwell: Sir Thomas is a man.
Norfolk:…d’you propose to meet the King disguised as a parish clerk? A parish clerk, my Lord Chancellor! You dishonor the King and his office!
More: The service of God is not a dishonor to any office. Believe me, my friend, I do not belittle the honor his Majesty is doing me.
More: …I’m not a God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can’t navigate. I’m no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I’m a forester. I doubt if there’s a man alive who could follow me there, thank God…
Alice; While you talk, he’s gone!
More: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d like to give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
I’m a prominent figure. Someone somewhere’s collecting information about Cromwell. Now no more shirking; we must make a start. There’s a stuffed swan if you please. Will, I’d trust you with my life. But not your principles. You see, we speak of being anchored to our principles. But if the weather turns nasty you up with an anchor and let it down where there’s less wind, and the fishing’s better. And “Look,” we say, “look, I’m anchored! To my principles!”
Roper: You are denying the Act of Supremacy!
More: No, I’m not; the Act states that the King—
Roper: —is Supreme Head of the Church in England.
More: Supreme Head of the Church in England—“So far as the law of God allows.” How far the law of God does allow it remains a matter of opinion, since the Act doesn’t state it.
Roper: A legal quibble.
More: Call it what you like, it’s there, thank God.
The Apostolic Success of the Pope is—….Why it’s a theory, yes; you can’t see it; can’t touch it; it’s a theory. But what matters to me is not whether it’s true or not but that I believe it to be true, or rather, not that I believe it, but that I believe it…I trust I make myself obscure?
More: Son Roper, you’re pleased with me I hope?
Roper: Sir, You’ve made a noble gesture.
More: A gesture? It wasn’t possible to continue, Will. I was not able to continue. I would have if I could! I make no gesture! My God, I hope it’s understood I make no gesture! Alice, you don’t think I would do this to you for a gesture! That’s a gesture (Thumbs his nose) That’s a gesture! (Jerks up two fingers) I’m no street acrobat to make gestures! I’m practical!
Roper: You belittle yourself, sir, this was not practical; this was moral!
More: Oh, now I understand you, Will. Morality’s not practical. Morality’s a gesture. A complicated gesture learned from books—that’s what you say, Alice isn’t it?...And you, Meg?
Margaret: It is, for most of us, Father.
Chapuys: Goodness can be a difficulty.
Chapuys: In the long run, of course, all good men everywhere are allies of Spain. No good man cannot be, and no man who is not can be good…
Attendant: Then he really is for us.
Chapuys: He is opposed to Cromwell, is he not?
Attendant: Oh, yes, Excellency.
Chapuys: If he’s opposed to Cromwell, he’s for us. There’s no third alternative?
Attendant: I suppose not, Excellency.
Chapuys: I have a personal letter for you.
More: From who?
Chapuys: My master, the King of Spain. You will take it?
More: I will not lay a finger on it.
Chapuys: It is in no way an affair of State. It expresses my master’s admiration for the stand which you and Bishop Fisher of Rochester have taken over the so-called divorce of Queen Catherine.
More: I have taken no stand!
Chapuys: But your views, Sir Thomas, are well known—
More: My views are much guessed at…
Chapuys: But, Sir Thomas, your views—
More: Are well known you say. It seems my loyalty to my King is less so!
More: Well, it’s a luxury while it lasts…There’s not much sport in it for you, is there? Alice, the money from the bishops. I can’t take it. I wish—oh, heaven, how I wish I could! But I can’t.
Alice: I didn’t think you would.
More: Alice, there are reasons.
Alice: We couldn’t come so deep into your confidence as to know these reasons why a man in poverty can’t take four thousand pounds?
More: Alice, this isn’t poverty.
Alice: D’you know what we shall eat tonight?
More: Yes, parsnips.
Alice: Yes, parsnips and stinking mutton! For a knight’s lady!
More: But at the worst, we could be beggars, and still keep company, and be merry together!
Cromwell: The King’s a man of conscience and he wants either Sir Thomas More to bless his marriage or Sir Thomas More destroyed.
Rich: They seem odd alternatives, Secretary.
Cromwell: Do they? That’s because you’re not a man of conscience. If the King destroys a man, that’s proof to the King that it must have been a bad man, the kind of man a man of conscience ought to destroy—and of course a bad man’s blessing’s not worth having. So either will do.
Norfolk: …The one fixed point in a world of changing friendships is that Thomas More will not give in!
More: To me it has to be, for that’s myself! Affection goes as deep in me as you think, but only God is love right through, Howard; and that’s my self.
Norfolk: And who are you? Goddammit, man, it’s disproportionate! We’re supposed to be the arrogant ones, the proud, splenetic ones—and we’ve all given in! Why must you stand out? You’ll break my heart.
More: The nobility of England, my lord, would have snored through the Sermon on the Mount. But you’ll labor like Thomas Aquinas over a rat-dog’s pedigree. Now what’s the name of those distorted creatures you’re all breeding at the moment?
Norfolk: Water spaniels!
More: And what would you do with a water spaniel that was afraid of water? You’d hang it! Well, as a spaniel is to water, so is a man to his own self. I will not give in because I oppose it—I do—not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do—I! Is there no single sinew in the midst of this that serves no appetite of Norfolk’s but is just Norfolk? There is! Give that some exercise, my lord!
Norfolk: Oh, confound all this…I’m not a scholar, as Master Cromwell never tires of pointing out, and frankly I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not. But damn it, Thomas, look at those names…You know those men! Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?
More: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?
Then it’s a poor argument to call it “neat,” Meg. When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then—he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.
Cromwell: I put it to the Court that the prisoner is perverting the law—making smoky what should be a clear light to discover to the Court his own wrongdoing!
More: The law is not a “light” for you or any man to see by; the law is not an instrument of any king. The law is a causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely. In matters of conscience—
Cromwell: The conscience, the conscience…
More: The word is not familiar to you?
Cromwell: By God, too familiar! I am very used to hear it in the mouths of criminals!
Norfolk: Have you anything to say?
More: Yes. To avoid this I have taken every path my winding wits would find. Now that the court has determined to condemn me, God knoweth how, I will discharge my mind…concerning my indictment and the King’s title. The indictment is grounded in an Act of Parliament which is directly repugnant to the Law of God. The King in Parliament cannot bestow the Supremacy of the Church because it is a Spiritual Supremacy! And more to this the immunity of the Church is promised both in Magna Carta and the King’s own Coronation Oath!
Cromwell: Now we plainly see that you are malicious!
More: Not so, Master Secretary! I am the King’s true subject, and pray for him and all the realm…I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live…I have, since I came into prison, been several times in such a case that I thought to die within the hour, and I thank Our Lord I was never sorry for it, but rather sorry when it passed. And therefore, my poor body is at the King’s pleasure. Would God my death might do him some good…Nevertheless, it is not for the Supremacy that you have sought my blood—but because I would not bend to the marriage!