When talking about A Man for All Seasons, one has to consider two aspects: the period in which the play was written and the historical backround on which it is based.
Robert Bolt was a playwright born in Lancashire on the 15th of August 1924. He started his career by writing a series of moderately famous plays including The Critic and the Heart. Despite being teaching both english and history, none of his early work was based on the past.
Published in 1960, A Man for All Seasons was Bolt's first play with a historical setting and also his most acclaimed work.Two more plays based on reality followed: Vivat! Vivat Regina!, about Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots; and State of Revolution about the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Following his success with A Man for All Seasons, Bolt got the opportunity to write for the big screen. He developed the script for many famous movies, including Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. His own play, A Man for All Seasons, was so popular that he was asked to adapt it into a movie script. This, together with his work for Lawrence of Arabia, brought Bolt two Academy Awards.
Although Bolt never apartained to any school, in A Man for All Seasons he adopted Bertolt Brecht's distancing effect. Through the unnatural medium of the Common Man directly adressing the audience as well as through the movement of props on stage in front of the audience Bolt attempted to alienate the audience and remind them that it is a play they are watching. This enabled the viewers to be detached enough to ponder the deeper implications of the story. Bolt had to write a play for the contemporary audience of the 1960s thus he had to incorporate a message that was universal.
In relation to the historical background, the action takes place during the reign of Henry VIII of England. After the death of his older brother Henry takes the throne and marries his sister-in-law with the approval of the Pope. However, Catherine can only provide a daughter and not the coveted male heir. In consequence, the King falls for the charms of Anne Boleyn and seeks a divorce.
When the Pope refuses to 'dispense with his dispensation' Henry orders the Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, to find a solution. His failure to do so causes his death and Thomas More, the main character of A Man for All Seasons, takes the position of Chancellor. However, his own refusal to swear by the Act of Succession brings about his execution. Today, More is considered a saint by the Catholic Church for not renouncing his faith. Bolt, inspired by this reality, reinvents the character of Thomas More not as a saint but as a highly principled man.
The title A Man for All Seasons is the exact description used by Robert Whittinson in 1520 when he wrote for posterity that More was a 'man of...gentleness, lowliness and affability' who had an 'angel's wit' and 'singular learning'. The Thomas More presented by Whittinson is the exact same Thomas More presented in Bolt's play.