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Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378

Notes on A Man For All Seasons

These are the final two scenes from the 1967 Academy Award Winner, A Man for All Seasons. Thomas More (Paul Scofield) stands accused of refusing to submit to an oath required of all English subjects affirming the claim of King Henry VIII as supreme head of the church. This oath essentially rejects the authority of the Pope. The king has taken this step because he cannot gain a divorce from his second wife in order to marry his third in hopes of gaining a male heir. More has refused to swear to this oath because he is a devout Catholic and believes that the king is defender of the faith, not its ruler. However, as a former member of the court, he is duty-bound to affirm the rightful claims of the King. How can he balance these conflicting demands?

More chooses a legal course of action. He interprets the laws to claim that he is, indeed, guilty of treason – an offense punishable by death – if he rejects the king’s claim. However, if More says nothing, than his silence may be interpreted as assent. However, More is well respected in England and throughout Europe. His silence speaks volumes and mocks the king’s desire. For months, he’s been locked in the tower of London with the assumption that enough pressure would force him to relent. But More stands fast and, therefore, must be brought to trial – charged with treason.

During the trial, he argues that since he has said nothing about his feelings, he cannot be charged with treason. However, the prosecution notes that silence can be more powerful than words.  

Cromwell: Yet how can this be? Because this silence betokened, nay, this silence was, not silence at all, but most eloquent denial!

More: Not so. Not so, Master Secretary. The maxim is "Qui tacet consentiret": the maxim of the law is "Silence gives consent." If therefore you wish to construe what my silence betokened, you must construe that I consented, not that I denied.  

Cromwell: Is that in fact what the world construes from it? Do you pretend that is what you wish the world to construe from it?

More: The world must construe according to its wits; this court must construe according to the law.

The jury would appear to side with More’s arguments but not before a former lackey who'd sought in vain to gain employment is brought before the court. He claims that More did, indeed, speak against the act. This claim, while false, is damning. More cannot help but note that the witness, Richard Rich, has recently been awarded employment by the prosecutor, as tax collector for Wales.

Only after he knows that he will be executed, More speaks his mind at last.

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