The Role of Corruption and Virtue in “A Man for All Seasons”

Last Updated: 08 Apr 2020
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“A Man for All Seasons” is a play written by Robert Bolt. It is inspired by true events and revolves around Saint Sir Thomas More, the Chancellor of England during the 16th century.

King Henry VIII’s wife, Catherine of Aragon (of Spain), is unable to bear a child and provide an heir for the throne. Owing to this reason, he wishes to divorce her and marry Anne Boleyn, the sister of his former mistress.

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However, Saint Sir Thomas More is against this idea and refuses to approve of the King’s desire. The Pope too is against this notion as he had previously disregarded a biblical law in order to allow Henry VIII to marry his wife. What follows is the test of a man’s ability to abstain from falling prey to the temptation of bribery and corruption, even if it means having to give up wealth, luxury and power.

Thesis: A major theme in “A Man for All Seasons” is the delineation between virtue and corruption in all its aspects, political, mental, moral and spiritual, depicted primarily through the leading characters.

Robert Bolt, through the medium of the main characters in the play, has elucidates the differences between the corrupt and the conscience-driven; the immoral and the principled. The play itself is a depiction of society and its many facets.

Sir Thomas More characterizes morality. He is “a hero of selfhood”, meaning that he will not compromise on his “self” or his values simply in order to please or gratify someone. He is the antithesis of the corrupt.

The Common Man represents common individuals and society in general. He performs various roles to portray conventional characters that one would encounter in everyday life. Ultimately he begins to forfeit his moral standards and concedes to the audience that in life, a man must do what is required in order to subsist.

The character of Richard Rich is symbolic of greed and avarice. He is a man that willingly sacrifices his ethics and principles for wealth and position. He is the epitome of corruption and depravity. Through this representation of morality and its antithesis, the writer has aptly described to the audience the elements of corruption, in all its forms.

Thomas More is the kind of man that would rather sacrifice his life than his ethics. Not only the audience but the other characters too view More as a man of morals. It is due to this fact that the King wishes to attain More’s acceptance before divorcing his wife and marrying another woman.

More’s acquiescence would endow the King’s decision with morality and people would approve of it more readily. The various characters attempt to sway More’s resolution of disapproval of the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. His steadfastness in resisting bribes demonstrates the strength of his principles.

For instance, when the Duke of Norfolk tries to convince More to sign an oath of allegiance, trying to reform England and the Church, More responds by stating, “"And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Heaven for doing according to your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing according to mine, will you come along with me—for fellowship?"

The audience will notice that there exists not an ounce of corruption in the character of Thomas More. He is the representative of a noble and virtuous human being. He is beheaded because of lie told by Richard Rich and till the very end More remains a man of conscience who will not submit to bribery even if his life were to depend on it, literally. He remains a man "anchored to his principles" (36).

The Common Man illustrates a middle path between the virtuous and the unscrupulous. He depicts the base nature of an average man. The choices of an average man are governed primarily by his need to survive, whether by hook or crook, and that is exactly what the Common Man portrays through his various images.

His declaration “Better a live rat than a dead lion” in Act II Scene vii, is a perfect example of this attitude of his. Here he is playing the jailer and affirms that he’d rather live by taking bribes or resorting to corruption, than die as an honorable man who will not give up upon his morals. His actions are not guided by his conscience but by his will to live, no matter what the price.

Richard Rich is a superficial and insincere individual who epitomizes the height of corruption. He, along with other characters that include Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey and Chapuys has been used by the author to embody the corruption existing in society. Rich is willing to sacrifice anything to advance himself politically.

He yearns for position and affluence at any cost. The opening scene itself gives us a glimpse into Rich’s personality when he tells More that he should be a teacher and disregards More’s advice saying that he should not be chasing after wealth and power and must surrender his corrupt ways.

In Act I Scene viii it is insinuated that Rich has sold his soul to the devil when he divulges information about the gilded cup to Cromwell in exchange for a job. The decisive illustration of his corrupt nature is when he lies, under oath in court, and gets his friend, More beheaded for his own selfish needs.

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The Role of Corruption and Virtue in “A Man for All Seasons”. (2016, Jun 11). Retrieved from

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