Looking at the trial and execution of Sir Thomas More, how do Robert Bolt's stagecraft, language, and symbolism create emotional and dramatic intensity in the inevitable climax of

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“The Greatest Englishman” – G.K. Chesterton

Looking at the trial and execution of Sir Thomas More, how do Robert Bolt’s stagecraft, language, and symbolism create emotional and dramatic intensity in the inevitable climax of “A Man For All Seasons”?

                A Man For All Seasons was written about Sir Thomas More and his relationship with the more powerful members of the country in the sixteenth century.  It is a recreation of history, dramatised to enhance the experience.  Written in the 1960’s in a world coming out of global depression, a time of peace, love and drugs, it was a thorn amongst the rose coloured glasses. When people were used to a more relaxed establishment, with much more equality than the decades leading up to it, A Man For All Seasons confronted an immoral, strict and spineless monarch that was Henry VIII. The play was a strong study of moral integrity versus corruption and selfishness, which both contradicted and enforced what the world was like in the 1960’s.  Bolt’s intention was to influence the present by portraying the past.

        A Man for All Seasons has a slow build up; the first three quarters of the book lays the foundations of the plot in a linear fashion before gradually advancing to a much more meaningful climax.  This climax is split into four main sections: “In The Tower”, “More Sees His Family”, “The Trial” and “The Execution”.  I will proceed to analyse these in turn.

        The beginning of the end is where More is in the tower.  This starts with the entrance of the Common Man.  He speaks and there is no one else on the stage, and he is facing the audience.  This indicates that he is a modern device, he is a character in the play, but he acts as a kind of narrator to break the audience’s suspension of disbelief.  This is ironic; because we know it’s not real, it makes us more poignant, and the audience knows things the characters don’t.  This is needed, as the play is very emotional, the audience need someone to remind them that the play isn’t real, yet it is based on a true story, which the Common Man reminds us of as well.  “Now look…” shows that he is funny, cheeky and much less formal.  The fact that he plays small characters throughout the play, and none of the other characters notice also breaks the audience away from the seriousness of the play.  This is important as the play is based on a true story, the audience are more likely to get emotional about the events in the play, and need to be relieved of this tension if they are to filly appreciate, understand, and enjoy the play.  “Better a live rat than a dead lion” shows that the Common Man is almost the complete opposite of More, as More is prepared to die for his beliefs, and effectively become a ‘dead lion’.  The audience will realise this later on, as the ending progresses and this will again reduce the suspension of disbelief.

At this point, the common man is a jailer.  This is a twist of fate that the common man has this part, as he is the one with the ability to release More but is keeping him prisoner.  The symbolism of the common man playing the many different characters is to say that we all play a part in More’s downfall; all these different posts, although not on purpose, somehow influence the tragic ending.

Before the jail ‘scene’ begins, properly, the Common Man reads out an envelope describing the events after Sir Thomas More’s death before it happens in the play.  This is important as the audience are being told the end of the play and the events that took place in reality after the play as finished, before the end of the play itself.  This relieves any emotional tension as the execution of Sir Thomas More and the build up to it is very powerful and the audience need to be relived of this to appreciate the play, and understand what happened in the 16th century.  It tells the audience the fate of the five main characters other than More.  This is interesting as when the trial of More comes, the audience already know the fate of the characters involved, which greatly relives the tension.  It may break the suspension of disbelief, but this is not needed as the events in the play are based on actual historic events.  At the end of this speech, the Common Man questions our mortality; “… died in his bed… I hope will all of you.”  At first this seems a nasty thing to say, but the audience then realises that it would be a nice way to die.  Also this is reinforcing that we are all human, and so were all the characters in the play.  The irony involved is that the evil, deceitful man, Richard Rich, died in his bed and he didn’t really deserve to, which gives out the message that life isn’t necessarily fair, so don’t take it for granted.

The atmosphere in this scene is quite haunting; “water-lit in moonlight” adds to the increasing amount of water imagery used in the play.  The iron grills remind the audience that More is imprisoned, and the rack is there as a sinister foresight.

The scene starts with More being woken up; “putting on his slippers” generates sympathy for More and also shows that he has aged.  The fact that More is woken up in the middle of the night suggests that the three men in the inquiry want More to give in to the oath, so they are interrogating him while he is weary.  Norfolk, Cromwell and Cranmer are these three men.  “A chair for the prisoner” shows that Norfolk cares for More, and still considers him a friend, even though all that’s happened.  It is ironic that More says “thank you” to the jailer, as he is keeping him imprisoned.  “They regard one another in hatred” obviously refers to the fact that throughout the play Norfolk and Cromwell have been arguing, as they strongly dislike each other.  This shows that Cromwell doesn’t really care about More and jus wants to get this over and done with, though “Will you swear to it?” indicates that Cromwell is persisting to get More to give into the oath as the King doesn’t want to kill More and Cromwell wants to please the King.  Norfolk is trying to get More to sign because he is his friend, whereas Cromwell is trying to get More to sign out of desperation because it will be his head on the block if he doesn’t.  “And when we stand before God…” shows even in a weary state, More maintains his defence and doesn’t give anything away that he shouldn’t.  This shows the audience that he is very clever, sensible, and alert to his surroundings.

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We can see here how each of the men got to their positions: Norfolk through birth, Cromwell through work, and More by intelligence and talent.  This shows that the Norfolk and Cromwell got to their positions through materialistic ways, whereas More got to his by means of a much more mental way.  We can now see who is likely to be the most and least corrupt.  

Bolt also shows that More cannot be questioned by the Archbishop either; “Some men think the Earth is round, …” says More when Cranmer tries to make him sign.  This is a moral ...

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