May 14, 2020

Robert Bolt's "A Man For All Seasons" | Legal Reads

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Joseph D. Nohavicka’s Pick:

My choice for Lit Legal Read today is "A Man For All Seasons," a play by Robert Bolt, based on the life of Sir Thomas More.

The performance of the play was about 2 and a half hours, but it is a very quick and well-written read. It is broken up into two acts. 

Here is a summary:

The main character, Thomas More, is a lawyer and a statesman in the court of Henry VIII. Henry wants to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, because did not bear him a son, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, the sister of his former mistress. 

Thomas More, was in a position to permit the divorce by not by going against his oath and not apply the law. So, he was convicted of treason and executed.  That is the play. Ends with Thomas More getting his head chopped off.

The play begins with a very interesting character, The Common Man dressed in black tights and sporting a pot belly:

It is perverse! To start a play made up of Kings and Cardinals in speaking costumes and intellectuals with embroidered mouths, with me.

If a King or a Cardinal had done the prologue he’d have the right materials. And if an intellectual would have shown enough majestic meanings, colored propositions, and closely woven liturgical stuff to dress the House of Lords! But this!

Is this a costume? Does this say anything? It barely covers one man’s nakedness? A bit of black material to reduce Old Adam to Common Man.

Oh, if they’d let me come on naked, I could have shown you something of my own…The Sixteenth Century is the Century of the Common Man. Like all other centuries. And that’s my proposition.

Robert Bolt

And so it goes.

History  reflects Sir Thomas More, as a true man of conscience.  In real life, he was an English lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman, and noted Renaissance humanist.  

He was also a counselor to Henry VIII, and Lord High Chancellor of England from October 1529 to 16 May 1532.  

He wrote Utopia, published in 1516, about the political system of an imaginary, ideal island nation.

Why is the play important for people interested in the law?

There are those who believe that to be a lawyer, in the truest sense of the word, you must have a conscience.  

What is Conscience?

Is it the low voice in our minds that acts as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of  behavior?

Clients are often looking to their lawyers to model the type of behavior that is appropriate in a legal matter. In that context, lawyers should be guided by their conscience. How we act and how we present ourselves has an impact.

In the play, More warns about the erosion of the rule of law:

When his daughter's suitor, Roper, claims that he would cut down every law in England to get after the devil, More responds, "And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?"

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.

Robert Bolt

Throughout the play, Thomas More asks, Is a person defined by their conscience?

That is for the reader to decide.

I had a picture in my office about 20 years ago with the caption, “The Honest Lawyer.” The picture above the caption was a headless lawyer holding his head in a dish.

I hope you have the chance to read this play, I know you will like it.

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