Read My Lips

Friends No More)

There is a scene in A Man For All Seasons where Thomas More must end his friendship to the Duke of Norfolk. Not because he dislikes the man–quite the contrary!–but to protect him. Right now being a friend of Thomas More is becoming a very dangerous proposition, and the last thing Thomas wants is for someone to be hurt for his sake.

You see King Henry is divorcing his first wife to marry another, which the church has historically labeled an immoral act. One-by-one, though, the most prominent minds weigh in to support the change of wives, as they are more concerned with protecting their lives and their stations than coming out in open defiance of the king.

Thomas More will not, though. He does not vocally speak against the divorce, but neither will he speak for it. And in his continued silence all his peers read his true opinions. An entire game is made up to force him to disclose his mind and More can feel the noose tightening around him at every turn.

And to be sure, he is ready to die for his conscience’s sake–quite literally as we see in the final act–but he does not want to be the death of anyone else along the way. And so, as I said, he has to get rid of his friendship to the Duke of Norfolk.

Interestingly, he comes to this realization while in conversation with the Duke, and even spells out that reasoning to him in plain terms. The Duke brushes it off, thinking it stupid for them to have a fake quarrel.

So then Thomas More really sets in to him:

MORE: You and your class have "given in"-as you rightly call it-because the religion of this country means nothing to you one way or the other... 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? What's the name of those dogs? Marsh mastiffs? Bog beagles?
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. As you stand, you'll go before your Maker in a very ill condition! And he'll have to think that somewhere back along your pedigree-a bitch got over the wall!

And then the Duke of Norfolk tries to clobber him! Because Thomas More is not fabricating a quarrel as the Duke had predicted, he is cutting loose on all of the genuine frustration he has towards his friend. Not only towards his friend, but to all the nobles that are denying their own principles. Perhaps he doesn’t want anyone else to die for his conscience’s sake, but he knows there are a few others who ought be dying for theirs!

And so it is a real enough reason to call off a friendship…but at the same time Thomas is only revealing this honest wrath because he is still fond of his friend and wants to protect him. Perhaps he thinks him a coward and a fool, but he still loves him.

The Traitor Friend)

And this is far from the only intricate relationship in A Man For All Seasons. Thomas is also friends with a young man named Richard Rich. Richard is desperate to make his way in life and hopeful that his friendship with Thomas More will open positions and profitability to him.

Thomas More likes Richard, but he also knows that the man is a leech, and so he counsels him to go find a safer station, like a teacher, where he won’t be tempted. But when the enemies of Thomas More gain the backing of the king there is an opportunity for Richard Rich to profit from betraying his friend. He goes to Thomas one last time for support, this time using a barely-disguised threat of throwing in with More’s enemies if Thomas will not relent:

RICH: Cromwell is asking questions. About you. About you particularly. He is continually collecting information about you!... I'm adrift. Help me.
MORE: How?
RICH: Employ me.
RICH: Employ me!
RICH: I would be steadfast!
MORE: Richard, you couldn't answer for yourself even so far as tonight.

Richard Rich will turn to the enemy (Cromwell) if Thomas More won’t employ him. Thomas More will not employ such a spineless weasel. And so Richard Rich goes to Cromwell. And then we have a scene of him acting reluctant and morose about betraying his friend…but why else did he go to his Cromwell if not do exactly that?

The man is fundamentally dishonest, even to himself.

The Servant)

Last of all let’s consider Thomas’s relationship with his servant Matthew. Matthew is surly and shiftless. There is little reason for Thomas More to care for him. And yet…after Thomas has lost his position and the means to pay for his household he has the following conversation with the man:

MORE: What about you, Matthew? It'll be a smaller wage. Will you stay?
MATTHEW: Don't see how I could then, sir.
MORE: Quite right, why should you? . . . I shall miss you, Matthew.
MATTHEW: No-o-o. You never had much time for me, sir. You see through me, sir, I know that.
MORE: I shall miss you, Matthew; I shall miss you.

Unlike Rich, Matthew is capable of being very honest of his unworthiness. Yet in spite of all the genuine reason Thomas has to dislike him, for some reason he still does. Thus their relationship is also layered and nuanced.

The Point to it All)

The story of A Man For All Seasons has everything to do with these complicated relationships. It is full of conversations just like these where things are said and not said, understood and misunderstood, implied and explicit.

All the lords vocalize their support of the king, even though their consciences’ balk at it. Thomas More will not speak his mind, yet everyone knows what is meant by his silence. He will end a friendship by expressing real frustrations, but still cares for the man he insults. Rich will imply threats, pretend innocence, and make entire falsehoods to win what he wants. And in the midst of all his trouble Thomas will express a fondness for a servant, even when there is no reason for him to like the man.

Nuance and subtlety are inherently some of the most difficult things for an author to write, I had my own challenges with them in my last entry of The Favored Son. A Man For All Seasons, however, effortlessly weaves them into almost every scene, until they become a core theme of the entire play.

In the next entry of my story I am going to continue with subtle implications laced through my main characters’ communication. Come back n Thursday to see how it turns out.

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