Robert Bolt says in his Preface to the play that Thomas More “became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off” (p. xii). In the play More is the only character with such a sense of integrity. Cromwell tells More he is amazed that he is the only one who opposes “the whole movement of the times” (Act Two, p. 114). More replies that it amazes him too that no one else opposes the injustice going on. All the others, including good people, yield to pressure and let their edges be blurred by society or necessity. A man of integrity can be a problem for others, as Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, says when he is unable to persuade More to support Spain: “Goodness can be a difficulty” (Act Two, p. 106). More is his own man and therefore unpredictable. Chapuys has simplistically assumed that if More is against Cromwell he is for the Spanish. Thomas More’s integrity is not a Church dogmatism, as his son-in-law Roper would like it to be. He does not act rigidly from a set of rules as a “Catholic” or “Englishman.” His is a supple intelligence. He tells his daughter Margaret that God made angels for splendor and animals for innocence and plants for simplicity, but Man was made to “serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind” (Act Two, p. 126). Thomas More is shown dynamically defending his integrity with his whole heart and mind, as in an intricate game of chess with the King. Even the King respects More’s integrity, calling his sincerity “water in the desert” (Act One, p. 55). More is willing to risk his life to keep his own honesty: “I must rule myself” (Act One, p. 59). He thus refutes the right of the King to rule him in matters of conscience.
Law vs. Power
The conflict between Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More represents a larger conflict of the times. In Bolt’s play, More stands for civil law, while Henry stands for monarchical power. More first of all asserts that divine law exists and is more powerful than man’s law, but it is mysterious and unknowable by an individual. Although he stands up for the Church law, More doesn’t claim authority in the matter. He says, “I’m not God” (Act One, p. 66). He recognizes limits to the power and knowledge of the individual, including a King, who cannot put himself at will above the law of the Church or the law of the land he rules. Civil law has been established over the centuries so that a person may live according to his conscience as long as he does no harm and can walk through life safely protected from the wrong use of power by others. In the play, the King’s laws are shown to be arbitrary and based on his own wishes, not on the larger good. In his Preface, Robert Bolt calls Henry “the monstrous baby” (p. vii) who must have his own violent way at any cost. The laws of religion (such as not killing another) and the civil law (such as evidence being required for accusation of a crime) are more objective, fair to all, and tested over time. They are reasonable as well as ethical. If the civil law is unfair, it can be amended by Parliament.
Henry, on the other hand, insists on absolute power with no checks. He takes over both church and state and executes whomever stands in his way. His decisions are not based on reason or virtue but on his own will. Sir Thomas More articulates a position of the future (civil rights), and Henry uses his traditional authority to rule rather than consensus or law, though both embrace the new humanistic learning that taught the primacy of reason. Roper accuses More: “the law’s your god” (Act One, p. 66). More denies this but says he would even give the Devil “benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake” (Act One, p. 66). More is shown to be right in that all those who side with the King in hopes they will be saved are eventually cut down by his insatiable power. More would rouse his countrymen to defend the law that keeps them safe and gives them their freedom and basic rights.
The Relativity of Point of View
Bolt makes history into a drama by showing the characters to have conflicting points of view. Henry’s view of his right to rule the kingdom any way he wishes conflicts with More’s ethics and moral stance. More’s willingness to go all the way to defend his values contrasts with his friend Norfolk’s caving in to threats. The Common Man’s concern for survival makes him small-minded and duplicitous, but he is not as blameworthy as the educated Rich, whose ambition for high place overrides his virtue. Both Wolsey and Cromwell are crafty and unprincipled, but Wolsey cares for England, while Cromwell is an opportunist. These different responses to historical pressures show a wide variety of human types that are still visible in today’s politics. Bolt makes the drama contemporary by adding in the idea that it is not only philosophies that clash but individual points of view. It is more than Catholic vs. Protestant or England vs. Spain or rich vs. poor. Even the Catholics—Chapuys, Roper, and More—differ in the way they see their religion. While Bolt obviously favors More’s view as the most admirable and worthy, he makes it clear that even More recognizes his views are his own and not meant to be a model for others. It is when someone insists his or her views are the only “right” ones that citizens are endangered.
More does not claim as Roper does, to prescribe right and wrong for others, to know absolutely what God wants or means. All through the play he is bitter about God’s vagueness: “I don’t know where he is nor what he wants” (Act One, p. 67). In the end, More only claims that he must be true to his own conscience, but he does not claim that he can know God’s will in the matter. He doesn’t expect everyone to go to the Tower and die for what he believes. He can only take responsibility for himself. This is a modern point of view, the idea that everyone has a right to his or her own opinion, but that one’s own opinion cannot be taken as an absolute. Every viewpoint is relative, with some having more merit than others. If More had only been a rote defender of the Church like Roper, he would not stand for the humanistic ideal he taught, of reasoning for oneself. More has come to accept his religion and the law through exercise of his own reason and conscience. Norfolk claims that More is giving up everything “for a theory” (p. 91). More contradicts him: “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” (p. 91). He does not defend the Church; he defends his right to live and die by his own point of view.