Table of Contents Context Plot Overview Character List Analysis of Major Characters Themes, Motifs & Symbols Summary & Analysis Act One, scene one Act One, scenes two–three Act One, scene four Act One, scenes five–six Act One, scene seven Act One, scene eight Act Two, scenes one–two Act Two, scenes three–four Act Two, scenes five–six Act Two, scene seven Act Two, scene eight Act Two, scenes nine–ten Important Quotations Explained Key Facts Study Questions & Essay Topics Suggestions for Further Reading Plot Overview The Common Man figures prominently both in the plot of the play and also as a narrator and commentator.
Although treated in more detail in other sections, in the following plot summary, his presence is indicated only when he interacts directly with the other characters in the play. SSir Thomas More, a scholar and statesman, objects to King Henry VIII’s plan to divorce and remarry in order to father a male heir. But More, ever the diplomat, keeps quiet about his feelings in the hopes that Henry will not bother him about the matter. At a meeting with Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor of England, More reviews the letter to Rome that requests the pope’s approval of Henry’s divorce.
More points out that the pope provided a dispensation, or exemption, in order for Henry to get married in the first place, since Catherine, the woman Henry married, was the widow of Henry’s brother. More doubts that the pope will agree to overturn his first dispensation. Wolsey accuses More of being too moralistic and recommends that he be more practical. After conversing with Wolsey, More runs into Thomas Cromwell, the king’s confidante. Cromwell, recently promoted to the position of cardinal’s secretary, insincerely tells More he is one of More’s greatest admirers. More also meets Signor Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador to England.
Chapuys takes More’s noncommittal response to questions about his meeting with Wolsey to mean that More agrees that the divorce should not go through. Chapuys stresses Christian morals and Catholic dogma and seems most concerned that Henry does not insult Henry’s wife, Catherine, who is also the king of Spain’s aunt. Chapuys thinks he has found an ally in More. Back at More’s home, More’s daughter, Margaret, has received a visit from Roper, her Lutheran boyfriend, despite the late hour. Roper asks More for Margaret’s hand, but More refuses to allow a Lutheran, in his eyes a heretic, into his family.
Meanwhile, Wolsey dies, leaving the position of Lord Chancellor vacant. The king was displeased with Wolsey’s failure to secure a papal dispensation to annul his marriage to Catherine, and Wolsey died in disgrace. More is appointed as Wolsey’s replacement. Cromwell meets with Richard Rich, a low-level functionary whom More helped establish and to whom More gave a silver cup he was given as a bribe. (More did not realize that the cup was a bribe when he received it. ) Cromwell tempts Rich with an opportunity for advancement, and the spineless Rich seems all too eager to accept the job in exchange for information he has about More.
Rich and Chapuys, who has just entered, ask Cromwell what his current position is, and Cromwell announces simply that he does whatever the king wants done. He mentions that the king has planned a boat ride down the Thames to visit More. Meanwhile, More’s manservant, Matthew (played by the Common Man), has entered the room, and Cromwell, Rich, and Chapuys are eager to bribe him for information. Matthew tells them only the most well known facts about his master, but the trio pays him off anyway. Back at More’s home in London’s Chelsea district, the king is set to arrive, but More is nowhere to be found.
After fretting over his absence, the family eventually finds him busy at vespers (evening prayers). When the king arrives, all are on their best behavior, and More comes off as the most flattering of all. However, More does tell the king that More cannot agree to the divorce, reminding him that the king promised not to bother More about it. The king storms off, telling More he will leave him alone provided More does not speak out against the divorce. Alice, More’s wife, is angry at his behavior and thinks her husband should do as Henry wants.
Rich arrives to tell More that Cromwell and Chapuys are collecting information about him. He asks for employment, but More turns him away. At a local pub called the Loyal Subject, Cromwell meets Rich to conspire against More. Rich is reluctant and guilt-ridden, but he ultimately agrees to tell Cromwell about the bribe that More received and passed on to him. In exchange, Cromwell offers Rich a job. Parliament passes the Act of Supremacy, which establishes the Church in England and appoints King Henry as its head. More decides that if the English bishops decide to go along with the act, he will resign as Lord Chancellor.
Both Chapuys and Roper call it a remarkable “gesture,” but More, dead set against the act, thinks of it as a practical necessity. He refuses to explain himself to anyone but the king. Even his wife and daughter cannot know his reasons, because he does not want to put them in the position of having to testify against him later. Cromwell meets with the Duke of Norfolk and tells him of his plan to bring More up on bribery charges. Norfolk proves that More gave the cup to Rich as soon as More realized it was a bribe, and Cromwell is forced to come up with some other way to entrap More.
He tells Norfolk, however, that the king expects him to participate in the persecution of More. A now impoverished More refuses to receive a letter of appreciation from the king of Spain, and he turns down the bishops’ sincere offer of charity. Cromwell calls More to his office and attempts to malign More by accusing him of sympathizing with the Holy Maid of Kent, who was executed for treason. Cromwell also accuses him of having written a book attributed to King Henry. More deconstructs both these charges, but when Cromwell reads a letter from King Henry calling More a villain, More is genuinely shaken.
Meeting Norfolk outside, More insists that if he wishes to remain in the king’s favor, Norfolk should cease to be his friend, since by this point it is dangerous to know a man like More. Parliament passes another act, this time requiring subjects to swear an oath to King Henry’s supremacy in England over the Church and to the validity of his divorce and remarriage. The next time we see More, he is in jail for having refused to take the oath. Cromwell, Norfolk, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, interrogate More in prison, but they cannot trick him into signing the oath or divulging his opinions on the king’s behavior.
As long as More refuses to talk or sign the oath, Cromwell can keep him locked up but cannot have him executed. He removes More’s books but lets his family visit, hoping that they will be able to reason with him. Though More’s daughter, Margaret, tries to convince her father he has done all he can, More refuses to relent. Alice finally sympathizes fully with More’s predicament, and, displaying their full love toward each other, they reconcile just before the jailer (the Common Man) insists that the visit is over. Cromwell gives Rich the office of attorney general for Wales in exchange for Rich’s false testimony at More’s trial.
Though More never opened his mouth, Rich claims he heard More deny the king’s authority over the Church. More is sentenced to death but not before he can express his disapproval of the Supremacy Act and his disappointment with a government that would kill a man for keeping quiet. More goes to his death with dignity and composure, and the play ends with his beheading. Character List Sir Thomas More – The protagonist of the play. More’s historical refusal to swear to Parliament’s Act of Supremacy is the play’s main subject, but Bolt intentionally does not depict More as the saint or martyr of legend.
Bolt does not see More as a person who takes a stand and sacrifices himself for a cause. Rather, Bolt’s More is a man who gives up his life because he cannot sacrifice his own commitment to his conscience, which dictates that he not turn his back on what he believes is right or on God. To More, a man’s conscience is his self, so he refuses to betray his own conscience even on pain of death. Significantly, More makes no move to speak out against King Henry’s divorce or to make any public gesture that indicates his opinion on the matter.
Only after Cromwell condemns him does Thomas reveal his true opinions. The Common Man – The Common Man sporadically narrates the play, and he plays the roles of most of the lower-class characters: More’s steward Matthew, the boatman, the publican (innkeeper), the jailer, the jury foreman, and the headsman (executioner). Bolt explains in his preface that he intends the Common Man to personify attitudes and actions that are common to everyone, but ultimately the Common Man shows that by common, Bolt implies base.
In most instances, the Common Man plays characters who just do their jobs without thinking about the consequences of their actions or anyone’s interest other than their own. Therefore, most of these characters end up betraying their own personal moral values. Over the course of the play, the characters the Common Man plays become more and more guilt-ridden. In the end, the Common Man silences his guilty conscience by finding solace in the fact that he is alive. He ends the play by implying that most people do the same thing. Richard Rich – A low-level functionary whom More helped establish.
Rich seeks to gain employment, but More denies him a high-ranking position and suggests that Rich become a teacher. Rich, however, goes to work for Norfolk instead and eventually obtains from Cromwell a post as the attorney general for Wales in exchange for perjuring himself at More’s trial. Like the Common Man, Rich serves as a foil, or character contrast, for Sir Thomas. In particular, Rich’s meteoric rise to wealth and power is simultaneous with More’s fall from favor. Unlike More, Rich conquers and destroys his conscience rather than obeying it.
The repetition of the word rich in his name signals Rich’s Machiavellian willingness to sacrifice his moral standards for wealth and status. Duke of Norfolk – More’s close friend. Norfolk is ultimately asked by Cromwell, and even encouraged by More himself, to betray his friendship with More. A large and rather simpleminded man, he is often too stupid to know what’s going on, and he is innocent relative to Cromwell. Alice More – More’s wife. A conflicted character, Alice spends most of the play questioning why her husband refuses to give in to the king’s wishes. Her attitude shifts from anger to confusion.
Eventually, More shows her that he cannot go to his death until he knows that she understands his decision. When she visits her husband in prison, Alice finally shows him unconditional love, saying that the fact that “God knows why” More must die is good enough for her. Thomas Cromwell – A crafty lawyer who is the primary agent plotting against More. Whereas Rich and the Common Man are driven to their immoral actions (conspiracy, execution, and so on) somewhat reluctantly at times, Cromwell is motivated more by an evil nature. He facilitates More’s downfall with only a minimum of guilt.
Cardinal Wolsey – The Lord Chancellor of England, who dies suddenly following his inability to obtain a dispensation from the pope that would annul King Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and permit him to marry Anne Boleyn. Though Bolt’s character descriptions claim Wolsey is ambitious and intelligent, Wolsey’s character is not well developed, and his primary function relates to the plot. Wolsey’s sudden death hangs over the rest of the play as a warning to anyone who would court the king’s disapproval. Chapuys – The Spanish ambassador to England.
Chapuys is loyal to his country and intent on assuring that the divorce between King Henry and Catherine, which would dishonor Catherine, does not go through. When questioning More, Chapuys displays his aptitude for hiding his political agenda under the guise of religious fervor. William Roper – An overzealous young man who is a staunch Lutheran at the beginning of the play and later converts to Catholicism. Roper is also Margaret’s boyfriend and, after he converts to Catholicism, her husband. Roper’s high-minded ideals contrast with More’s level-headed morality, making Roper yet another foil for More.
Each of Roper’s scenes shows him taking a public stance on a new issue, in opposition to More, who prefers to keep his opinions to himself. In a conversation with Roper, More argues that high-minded ideals, which he dubs “seagoing principles” are inconsistent at best, and he advocates human law as a better guide to morality. Margaret Roper – More’s well-educated and inquisitive daughter. Also called Meg, Margaret is in love with and later marries William Roper. She shows that she understands her father perhaps better than anyone else in the play (except for More himself, of course).
However, like her mother, Margaret questions her father’s actions. King Henry VIII – The king of England, who only briefly appears onstage but is a constant presence in the speech and the thoughts of the other characters. It is very important to Henry that others think of him as a moral person, and he therefore cares greatly about what More, a man of great moral repute, thinks of him. Henry, who believes that he can force everyone, including the pope, into validating his desires, wants to put his conscience at ease by forcing More to sanction the king’s divorce from Catherine.
Analysis of Major Characters Sir Thomas More Even though Bolt announces in his preface that he tried to avoid the perils of having his characters represent something, symbolism turns out to be a major force driving the action of the play, as most characters are motivated by More’s reputation as a moral man, not by More’s individual characteristics. Perhaps, in fact, More stands for the perils of being perceived as a saint or a moral man. Throughout the play, characters—including Chapuys, Roper, Cromwell, and the king—view More as a representative of a concept rather than as a person.
His consent is important to the king and to Norfolk because it would make them feel and appear moral. Chapuys too sees More as an upstanding moral and religious man, and Chapuys takes comfort in the fact that the virtues More represents contradict the king’s actions. In his preface to the play, Bolt calls More “a hero of selfhood. ” More refuses to sacrifice his self, which he defines by his moral conscience, even as he sacrifices his life. Though More was much later sainted for his refusal to swear an oath to King Henry’s supremacy to the pope, Bolt does not depict More as someone who ascribes to religious dogma of any sort.
In fact, Bolt disparages such people, who are represented by Will Roper. As a hero, More is more existential than religious, because he looks inwardly for his motivations and does not rely on any external ideals to guide his speech and actions. In fact, More’s morals are continually shifting, and he surprises Chapuys and other characters with his sharp wit and unexpected pragmatism. If an ideal agrees with his conscience, More will do his best to live up to it; if not, he will discard it. More’s reverence for being practical, however, is rooted in his love for the law.
According to Bolt, the letter of the law held an important place in More’s conscience, albeit a notch below that held by the Church of Christ and the kingdom of heaven. Bolt explains that he uses More’s reverence for heaven as a metaphor for humanity’s reverence for the “terrifying cosmos,” which is either void of any morality or occupied by warring forces of good (God) and evil (the devil). Unable to know the nature of the cosmos, Bolt contends, More put his faith in society’s system of judgment—the law. The great beyond, symbolized in the play by the sea and water, remains unknown to humankind.
Earthly society and laws, symbolized by dry land, offer the only shelter from the uncertainties of the universe. The Common Man In his preface, Bolt explains that he intended “common” to be understood to mean “universal,” but many people ascribe the pejorative connotations of vulgar and low class to the word as well. Bolt laments the fact that upper class and even lower-status people, who resented such an image, failed or refused to view the Common Man as a representative of themselves. However, regardless of how Bolt viewed his character, the Common Man embodies both universality and baseness.
In fact, the Common Man shows that the “common” human being is base and immoral. Although the Common Man acts in many different roles in order to establish his universal nature, he actually develops into a coherent character as the play progresses. Initially, he portrays Matthew and the boatman, who are forgotten figures of the lower class who judge the noble characters in the play and make them look like fools. Yet as the play progresses, even the characters played by the Common Man begin to lose their moral footing.
Matthew, for example, tries to suppress his guilty conscience for having sold out More after More expresses his affection for Matthew. Eventually, the Common Man’s characters become more aware of the excuses they make for their immoral acts. When the jailer deliberates about whether to set More free, he speaks directly to the audience about the futility of trying to do the right thing. By the end of the play, the Common Man affirms the notion that to be alive—regardless of the nature of one’s actions—is the only thing that counts.
As a whole, the Common Man’s role in the play shows his complicity in More’s persecution. Because the Common Man represents humanity in general, he is intended to draw us all into the play’s central moral dilemma. Richard Rich Again, even though Bolt claims that he did not want his characters to stand for anything in particular, Rich symbolizes the tendency to succumb to the temptation of wealth and status. Rich is a Machiavellian hero, someone who seeks to advance himself politically and socially, whatever the cost.
Despite his selfishness, Rich reveals his humanity when he wrestles with his own conscience while he sells out his friend More. In Rich’s awareness of his moral shortcomings, he is similar to the Common Man. Like Cromwell, Rich serves as a foil to More, highlighting More’s superior character. Rich also illuminates More’s character in less obvious ways. For instance, in the opening scene, More tells Rich that he should be a teacher. More shows great interest in Rich’s moral fiber and wishes for him to quell his petty, self-interested urge to gain wealth and status.
More’s conversation with Rich reveals More’s own interest in teaching as not just a profession but as something he himself practices throughout the play. In his interaction with Rich in the first scene, More teaches by testing Rich by offering him the goblet, letting Rich know that the goblet was a bribe and is therefore tainted. More understands Rich’s faults from the very opening of the play, but he tries to nurture Rich anyway. It is therefore tragic that Rich eventually perjures himself to condemn More to death. Themes, Motifs & Symbols Themes
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work. Types of Moral Guides In his preface, Robert Bolt addresses the apparent contradiction between Thomas More’s upright moral sense and his periodic attempts to find legal and moral loopholes. More strongly opposes Henry’s divorce, yet he hopes to avoid rather than speak out against the Oath of Supremacy. More explains his actions when he says to Will Roper, “God’s my god. . . . But I find him rather too . . . subtle. ” More respects God’s law above all else, but he also does not pretend to understand it.
Therefore, he sees man’s law as the best available guide to action, even if it occasionally contradicts God’s law or lets some evildoers off the hook. In his approach to moral action, More is thoroughly pragmatic, but not, like Cromwell or Rich, at the expense of his beliefs. If More sometimes seems hypocritical, it is because he is trying to balance his respect for the law and society with his deep-rooted sense of self. He obeys the law fully, and, in the end, the prosecution has to come up with false charges to execute him.
More’s pragmatic maneuvering through society contrasts with what More calls Roper’s “seagoing” principles. Roper follows ideals instead of a his conscience or the law, and More argues that attempting to navigate high-minded ideals is akin to being lost at sea. Roper switches willy-nilly from Catholicism to Lutheranism and back again, each time utterly convinced of his own righteousness. Bolt implies that because we cannot comprehend the moral alignment of the universe, much less wrap it up in a tidy theory, we should focus our energy on improving ourselves and our society.
Corruption A Man for All Seasons focuses on the rise of Richard Rich as much as it follows the fall of Sir Thomas More. As More’s steadfast selfhood earns him a spot on the chopping block, Rich acquires more and more wealth and greater status by selling out his friend and his own moral principles. Although Rich at first bemoans his loss of innocence, by the end of the play he has no qualms about perjuring himself in exchange for a high-ranking position. In Act One, scene eight, Rich gives Cromwell information about the silver cup in exchange for a job.
Rich laments that he has lost his innocence, and the scene suggests that Rich has sold his soul to the devil. Cromwell himself evokes the devil as he craftily cajoles Rich into selling out before cramming Rich’s hand into a candle flame. Although Act One, scene eight recalls many cautionary religious tales about the seductive powers of the devil, Bolt does not depict Rich’s corruption to warn us that people like Rich go to hell. Rather, Rich’s corruption, set against More’s hard and fast sense of self, shows the damage Rich has done to his own life.
Rich has sacrificed the goodness of his own self, which the play argues is the only thing for which life is worth living. The Self and Friendship Through its depiction of More’s personal relationships, the play examines the extent to which one can be true to oneself and a good friend to others. Above all, More looks inwardly for his strength and comfort. He appears to be more of a teacher than a friend or a lover. He relies on his own conscience as his guide, and through tests and through the example he sets, he attempts to teach others to do the same.
However, More’s instructive instinct results in relationships that are not overtly heartfelt. One could also argue that More shows his friendship and love by teaching others. The play shows that More’s self-reliance is not completely incompatible with friendship and love. In More’s conversations with Norfolk and Alice, he shows that he truly cares about them as his friend and wife, respectively. More tells Norfolk to “cease knowing him,” but More argues that he gives his instruction because of the friendship the two men share.
He tells his wife that he could not die peacefully if he knew that she was still confused about why he remains silent and does not give in to King Henry. More also tells Matthew that he will miss him. Motifs Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes. Satire and Wit Throughout the play, the characters with ties to the court participate in confused and misinterpreted exchanges of dialogue. These exchanges both satirize the court and portray the way corrupt morals lead to corrupt and ambiguous speech.
In Cromwell’s exchange with the innkeeper, Cromwell humorously states that he can never be quite sure whether he’s duping or being duped when he interacts with such a “tactful” person. Cromwell has a similar exchange with Rich, in which he tries to assess just how trustworthy and how bribable Rich might be. Chapuys wrongly assumes that More’s straightforward answers are double talk and gives him a knowing wink that is completely out of place. Historically, More was as witty as he was saintly. Much to Alice’s chagrin, More spends most of his time making light of the dangerous situations he encounters.
In the play, More’s wit establishes his humanity. In Act One, scene seven, More insists that man is born to serve God “wittily. ” By this, he means that man must cleverly escape death for as long as he legitimately and lawfully can, but the statement also emphasizes the importance of a sense of humor. Silence More is remarkable as much for his silence as for his statements. He maintains that if he does not speak his opinion concerning his disapproval of the king’s intention to divorce his wife, then, according to the Bible, his silence will connote consent, not dissent.
More uses silence to his advantage, refusing to incriminate himself in a way that resembles invoking the fifth amendment in a United States court of law. More also protects his family from legal persecution by staying silent about his opinions in their presence. More is silent in other ways as well. He disparages people, like Roper, who clamor at all times about ideals. More prefers to listen to the voice within, his conscience. He does not criticize Norfolk until he is sure that Norfolk needs to be criticized and enraged.
At the trial, Cromwell’s argument to the jury equates More’s silence with complicity in a crime. Cromwell’s claim is ironic, for the play shows how many other characters— primarily those played by the Common Man—remain silent when they could tell More about the plot against him. Guilt Guilt receives much attention in the play, particularly in the characters of Rich, Norfolk, the jailer, Matthew, and even in More himself. Bolt shows how Rich constantly suffers under his own sense of guilt and yet cannot resist the temptation to improve his own prospects at the expense of others and his own conscience.
When he is Matthew, the Common Man noticeably feels guilt on some level when More shows affection for him. As the jailer, the Common Man has a conscious understanding of his guilt and assuages his guilty conscience by convincing himself that it would be futile to set More free. Norfolk is obviously wracked with a sense of guilt when he tells More of Cromwell’s plot and his own association with it. More himself shows an inkling of guilt when he realizes that he might have to go to the chopping block with his family still unaware of why he acts the way he does.
More understands guilt as a personal judgment made by one’s own conscience, and, based upon one’s perspective, the same action could be guilty or innocent. He also seems to be able to eradicate the guilt he feels for taking the tainted goblet as a bribe by getting rid of it. This flexibility is particularly true with respect to Norfolk. More says that he and More could part as friends even if Norfolk were to remain in his office, which is associated with the plot against More. Symbols Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts. Water and Dry Land
In his preface, Bolt announces that his play is rife with water and seafaring imagery, which symbolizes the uncertain moral territory of the great beyond, the unknowable realm of God and the devil. Characters who establish their actions on such an uncertain base include King Henry, whose shaky moral ground is symbolized by the way he sails down the Thames in order to visit More, and Roper, who holds what More calls “seagoing” principles. Unlike Henry and Roper, More recognizes God’s will as impossible, and More therefore prefers to root his actions in his own conscience and in the law.
When speaking with Roper, More compares the realm of human law to a forest filled with protective trees firmly rooted in the earth. To emphasize his belief in law as a guide to action, More tells Roper that removing all the laws in pursuit of the devil would be like cutting down all the trees in the land, letting the devil run amok like a fierce wind. In other words, More views society as a bulwark against the moral mysteries of the cosmos. The Gilded Cup In the first scene in Act One, More offers Rich a cup that More received as a bribe.
Acknowledging that the cup is tainted, More tells Rich that he wishes to be rid of it. More tries to set an example by throwing away the cup, but Rich quickly shows that he does not share More’s intentions. Rich takes the cup from More and pawns it for money and a new set of fashionable clothes. The cup symbolizes corruption, and it also symbolizes More’s attempt to test Rich and teach him by example. More’s attempt to test Rich with the cup actually sets in motion the events that lead to More’s conviction at the end of the play—a conviction that Rich helps secure by lying under oath in court. Act One, scene one
Summary My Master Thomas More would give anything to anyone. Some say that’s good and some say that’s bad, but I say he can’t help it—and that’s bad . . . because some day someone’s going to ask him for something that he wants to keep; and he’ll be out of practice. (See Important Quotations Explained) The play opens with a monologue by the Common Man, a character meant to represent traits and attitudes common to us all. The Common Man carts around a basket of costumes and props that he uses in his various roles in the play. The Common Man laments having to open a play about royalty and the noble class.
He thinks himself unsuited to the task at hand, but he says he will present his own version. He puts on the costume of Matthew, Thomas More’s servant, and declares the sixteenth century “the Century of the Common Man. ” Matthew treats himself to some of the wine he is putting out for his master and then introduces us to More as he enters. More playfully asks Matthew how the wine tastes, knowing full well that Matthew sampled it. Richard Rich follows More into the room, and the two engage in an argument as to whether every man is capable of being bribed.
More dismisses Rich’s belief that money, status, or women can bribe anyone, but he is intrigued when Rich implies that a man can be bought with suffering. As it turns out, Rich means that men wish to avoid suffering and are attracted to the possibility of escape. More immediately recognizes this idea as one of the theories of Machiavelli, and he asks who recommended that Rich read Machiavelli’s books. Rich admits that Master Cromwell recommended he read Machiavelli. Cromwell, Rich reveals, offered Rich a job or a favor of some sort, but Rich bemoans his joblessness and his generally low social standing.
More points out that the dean of St. Paul’s school has a comfortable teacher’s job available, but Rich has no interest in what he deems a dead-end opportunity. More warns that holding an administrative office is full of temptations, and he shows Rich an Italian silver cup that a litigant used to try to bribe him. More did not realize at the time that the cup was a bribe, and now that he does, he wishes to get rid of it. Rich says he will sell the cup to buy new, more respectable clothing. The duke of Norfolk and More’s wife, Alice, enter, arguing over whether a falcon can stoop from 500 feet to kill a heron.
Norfolk baits Alice into a bet of thirty shillings, although More refuses to let her ride off with Norfolk to see who wins. Meanwhile, More’s daughter, Margaret, has entered, and Rich begins to flatter Norfolk. More playfully tells everyone that Rich has been reading Machiavelli under Cromwell’s tutelage. Norfolk announces that Cromwell has been promoted to the position of cardinal’s secretary, and everyone is surprised that such a lowborn and generally disliked man could get such a job. More points out that Rich’s relationship with Cromwell is now more valuable and that Rich will not need any help from More at finding a job.
Rich pleads that he would rather work for More than for Cromwell, but a letter from the cardinal interrupts him. The cardinal wants to see More immediately. As More prepares to leave, he sends his family off to bed with a prayer and arranges for Norfolk to take Rich home. More tells the duke that Rich needs a job, but he playfully adds that he does not necessarily “recommend” Rich. Again, More advises Rich to teach. Just before the scene ends, Rich runs back in to snatch up the silver cup that he left on the table. Matthew moves to stop him from taking it, but Rich explains that it was a gift.
Matthew closes the scene by predicting that Rich will amount to nothing and that More is altogether too generous. Analysis The Common Man initiates us to a story that might otherwise seem too far removed in time to connect with modern audiences. Throughout the play, the Common Man plays many roles, which emphasizes that he represents all humanity. He functions as a common denominator against which the other characters in the play can be judged. The trust More places in his sense of self resonates with the existentialist idea that human beings are defined above all by their inner selves, by their unique perspectives on existence.
This brand of thought was popularized about a decade before Bolt’s play by thinkers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, but the characters in the play, which is set in the sixteenth century, find More’s beliefs foreign. The Common Man shows us how we all end up betraying ourselves by just doing our jobs—by serving in our professions as kings, cardinals, or even commoners—before being true to our inner selves. The fact that Rich has read Machiavelli puts Rich’s actions in a historical and intellectual context.
Nicolo Machiavelli (1469–1527), who was most famous for his political treatise The Prince, which advocated a kind of common-sense approach to government that put political expediency ahead of ethical and moral concerns. Machiavelli’s morals differ greatly from More’s. More reveres his private conscience above things like personal advancement, but Machiavelli advises the opposite. Rich’s reference to Machiavelli foreshadows the way he and his mentor, Thomas Cromwell, will spare no one to achieve success later in the play. In addition to the Machiavelli reference, several other instances of foreshadowing pop up in this scene.
More’s gift of the silver cup to Rich has dangerous implications for More later. Matthew’s remarks at the end of the scene that More has been too generous in giving Rich the cup also foreshadow More’s downfall. However, even though the gift marks the beginning of Rich’s corruption, More seems to understands the implications when he offers the cup. He tests Rich by offering him both the tainted cup, which represents corruption, and a teaching position, which represents a way of benefiting society. When Rich shuns the teaching job and accepts the cup, he reveals his immoral character.
While offering the teaching position to Rich, More provides a glimpse into his own nature. More operates in the play primarily as a servant—to his own conscience and to God. When he interacts with other people, however, More adopts the role of teacher. As he illustrates in his conversation with Rich, More teaches not by speaking his mind, but rather by testing others. Bolt shows More to be a morally ambiguous teacher who does not stop, and in fact almost encourages, Rich’s moral descent. Act One, scenes two–three Summary: Scene two Well . . . I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties . . they lead their country by a short route to chaos. (See Important Quotations Explained) More arrives at Cardinal Wolsey’s office, and the cardinal asks More what took him so long. Wolsey presents More with a message to be sent to the pope, explaining that since More seemed so opposed to the dispatch, he should look it over. More diplomatically comments on the style of the message, but Wolsey is more interested in what More has to say about the message’s content. More mentions that the message is addressed to a Cardinal Campeggio and not to the English ambassador to Rome.
Wolsey retorts that he personally appointed a “ninny” to the office of ambassador expressly so that he could write to the cardinal directly. Intrigued, More comments that Wolsey’s maneuver is “devious,” and Wolsey bemoans what he calls More’s “plodding” moralism. Getting down to business, Wolsey states that King Henry has just returned from a rendezvous with his mistress, Anne Boleyn. According to Wolsey, Henry means to divorce his current wife, Catherine of Aragon, in favor of Anne, who Henry suspects will be more successful at providing him a male heir.
Wolsey must now secure the pope’s authorization of Henry’s divorce and remarriage, and he wants assurance that More will not oppose the action. But More has already expressed his opinion that the divorce should not be enacted without the pope’s willing approval. Wolsey conveys to More the potentially detrimental implications of opposing Henry’s divorce. Wolsey claims that if the king does not produce an heir to the throne, a change of dynasty or a bloody war of succession will ensue. More is shaken but responds that he prays every day that Catherine will conceive an heir. Wolsey is skeptical. More reminds the cardinal that it ook a papal dispensation, or exemption to Catholic laws, to allow Henry and Catherine (who is Henry’s brother’s widow) to marry in the first place. He wonders at the sensibility or feasibility of discarding the pope’s first dispensation. Wolsey, in turn, wonders at More’s willingness to put his own private conscience above the interests of his country. But More retorts that by listening to their own consciences, statesmen avoid leading their country into chaos. Wolsey again bemoans More’s moralism. Anticipating his own death, Wolsey wonders aloud who might replace him as Lord Chancellor when he is gone.
When Wolsey suggests Cromwell, his secretary, More is shocked and says that he would rather do it himself than see Cromwell appointed. Wolsey says More would need to be more practical to fill the chancellor’s post and tells More he should have been a cleric. Summary: Scene three Outside, More quibbles with the boatman over the fare for a trip back to his home in Chelsea. Just then, Cromwell arrives to remind the boatman that the fares are fixed, so he cannot charge More a higher price just because of the late hour. Cromwell announces that he is on his way to see the cardinal, and he guesses that More has just come from the cardinal’s office.
More admits as much, and he says that the cardinal is not in the best mood. Cromwell pays More an insincere compliment and heads in to see the cardinal. As More prepares to leave, Signor Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, arrives and tries to wheedle information out of More about his meeting with the cardinal. More simply replies that he and the cardinal parted “amicably,” if not in agreement. The ambassador interprets More’s comment to mean that More will oppose King Henry’s divorce from Catherine, who is the king of Spain’s aunt. Chapuys announces that his king would take personal offence if the divorce goes through.
With a nod and a wink (disregarded by More), the ambassador exits. As More returns home in the boat, the boatman complains about fixed fares and his wife’s weight. Analysis: Scenes two–three Historically, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, archbishop of York, was virtually in charge of England at the beginning of Henry’s reign. The king preferred living in the countryside and hunting to the tedium of leading. Wolsey fell out of Henry’s favor when he failed to secure a papal dispensation for Henry’s divorce, because Pope Clement VII showed his allegiance to Catherine’s nephew, Charles V of Spain.
In his conversation with More, Wolsey reveals his role as the go-between for the English king and the pope in Rome. Wolsey must juggle the needs of the state with those of the Church, and after Wolsey dies, his successor must bear the burden of Henry’s disapproval. Although King Henry appears in the play only once, he is constantly present in the thoughts and the speech of the other characters. When Wolsey announces Henry’s offstage return from his visit with Anne Boleyn, in Act One, scene two, he establishes Henry’s role as a man whose uneasy conscience needs to be satisfied.
Wolsey (and later Cromwell) bears responsibility for assuaging Henry’s conscience when he has deliberately done something sinful. In a way, Henry’s behavior accounts for Wolsey own questionable conduct, including Wolsey’s attempts to threaten and cajole More into agreement. Henry’s actions are responsible for More’s persecution. Henry’s absence from most of play implicates the characters, such as Wolsey, who enact Henry’s persecution of More. Though Henry is responsible for More’s persecution, Wolsey’s willingness to accomodate Henry’s hypocrisy makes him just as guilty as the king.
Cromwell and Chapuys personify the devious and duplicitous characters necessary to remain in Henry’s good favor. Consequently, they also personify the kind of groveling that More cannot stand. They are political and calculating, and they couch their performances in a falsely deferential tone. Cromwell, for instance, insincerely calls himself More’s admirer. He makes the same claim later in the play, even as he attacks More. Summary Back at home, More discovers that despite the late hour, Margaret’s boyfriend, Roper, is paying a visit. When the pair enters, More is playful, reminding Roper of the late hour.
When Margaret announces that Roper has asked for her hand in marriage, More resolutely refuses. Roper, suspecting that More objects to his social standing, points out that he is going to be a lawyer and that his family is well-off. More tells Roper there is nothing wrong with his family. Rather, More objects to Roper’s Lutheran faith, which More considers to be heretical. Roper balks at the title of heretic and claims that it is the Catholic Church that is heretical. He brings up Henry’s divorce, which he suspects the pope will allow. Roper even goes so far as to call the pope the Antichrist.
Angry, More points out to Roper that Roper was a passionate Catholic just two years earlier and says he hopes that when Roper finishes with his religious wavering, he ends up a Catholic once again. Margaret attempts to keep everyone’s temper in check. More sends Roper home on Alice’s horse. Left alone, More and Margaret discuss Roper and his family. Margaret asks about her father’s meeting with the cardinal, but More changes the subject back to the Ropers, saying that Roper’s father was just like his son. Suddenly, Alice runs onstage, having seen Roper taking off with her horse.
More explains the situation, and she announces that he should have beaten his daughter for receiving Roper at such an hour. More disagrees, saying Margaret is too “full of education,” which is expensive and difficult to obtain. While Margaret goes to get her father some tea, Alice asks about More’s meeting, and once again he changes the subject. Alice is shocked to learn of Roper’s marriage proposal, but she realizes that her husband is trying to divert her and asks again what Wolsey wanted. More finally admits that Wolsey wanted him to read over a dispatch to Rome, and Alice knows not to ask any more questions.
When Margaret returns with the tea, Alice mentions that Norfolk suggested More should replace Wolsey as Lord Chancellor. More says he wants nothing to do with the office, and he predicts that while Wolsey is alive, there will not be any replacement Lord Chancellor. As the group heads off to bed, Alice insists that More drink his tea, since great and common men alike catch colds. More retorts that such talk is dangerously seditious. Analysis Some background on the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism makes More’s objections to Roper understandable.
In 1517, Martin Luther posted his list of ninety-five theses on the “Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” harkening the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Protestantism (or Lutheranism, as its initial form was called) took as its main tenet the idea that outward displays of faith as practiced by the Catholic Church could never take the place of a personal, private faith in God. Martin Luther objected to the idea that people could purchase pardons from their church as penance for their sins, even if, in their hearts and souls, they did not repent.
Viewing the Catholic Church as morally bankrupt in many ways, Luther’s sympathizers spread his message, and the Protestant faith expanded across Europe. Ironically, More appears to have much in common with the Protestant faith, while Roper more closely resembles the Catholicism to which Protestants objected. Roper passionately argues that the Catholic Church needs reform, even going so far as to call the pope the Antichrist. But his actions, according to More, are simply outward displays of ideals and are not necessarily grounded on firm, personal moral footing.
Roper’s passion in this scene illustrates how lofty ideals are unstable moral guideposts compared to one’s own moral conscience. Bolt plays with the popular understanding of More, a saint who represents a deep-seated commitment to Catholicism. In the play, Bolt shows a strong commitment to the pope and to the laws of God as he understands them. However, More’s commitment to Catholicism is based upon what his conscience tells him to do, not upon some lofty ideal. More’s morals contrast with Roper’s high-minded, insincere idealism. In trying to quell her father’s and Roper’s tempers, Margaret says to Roper, “You’ve no sense of the place! Margaret’s exclamation introduces another important aspect of More’s morality—his practicality. To most people, ideals are unrelated to circumstance and they adhere to ideals despite obvious indications that their ideals do not apply to particular circumstances. To More, however, it is important to consider the specific, practical details of a situation before making a decision based on one’s ideals. Though characters like Wolsey accuse him of being overly moralistic, More constantly considers the details of an act or an oath to see if he can abide by it without violating his conscience.
Though Roper might reject an act on principle, More reserves judgment. He objects to an act only if it impedes his sense of self, and even then (as later scenes show), he objects only as much as he absolutely has to. More’s unwillingness to talk about his meeting with the cardinal foreshadows his later refusal to discuss his opinions about the Act of Supremacy. Though Alice understands in this instance not to press the matter, she eventually takes offense at not being allowed into her husband’s confidence.
Again, More places more weight on the practical considerations of the matter than on even his love and respect for his family. Not wanting to implicate them in his affairs, he leaves them out of them, remaining a conscientious yet solitary man. Alice foreshadows Wolsey’s death when she comments about how colds affect great and common men alike. Wolsey soon dies, and his death seems an implicit affirmation of Alice’s statement. Act One, scenes five–six Summary: Scene five A single spotlight reveals a red robe and the cardinal’s hat lying on the floor.
The Common Man enters to describe Cardinal Wolsey’s death, which was officially attributed to pulmonary pneumonia but, for all intents and purposes, was caused by the king’s displeasure with Wolsey’s handling of the divorce. Wolsey died on his way to jail for the crime of high treason. Thomas More, the Common Man reports, was appointed Wolsey’s successor. The Common Man jokes that More is considered by some to be a saint and that if one acknowledges his stubborn disregard of ordinary reality, then he probably was one. Summary: Scene six Cromwell and Rich run into each other at Hampton Court.
Belittling Rich’s new job—Rich is now Norfolk’s secretary and librarian—Cromwell mentions that he himself was promoted into the king’s service. He asks Rich why he does not have a better job since the new Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, is his old friend. When Rich sheepishly replies that he and More are not really friends, Cromwell takes the opportunity to dangle a job offer before him, presumably in exchange for some service. Suddenly suspicious, Rich asks Cromwell what exactly he does for the king, and just then Signor Chapuys enters and asks the same question.
Cromwell skirts the issue but finally explains that he does whatever the king “wants done. ” As an example, Cromwell mentions that he recently arranged Henry’s trip down the Thames on the maiden voyage of a new battleship, the Great Harry. After Chapuys reminds Cromwell that the ship has fewer guns than Cromwell has claimed, Cromwell tells Chapuys that the king plans to sail the ship to More’s house to discuss the king’s divorce. Shocked, Signor Chapuys complains that More has already expressed his opinion on the matter. Cromwell insists that the king hopes to make More change his mind.
More’s steward, Matthew (played by the Common Man), appears, and all three men are eager to talk to him. Cromwell pushes Chapuys out of view and questions Matthew about More’s opinions concerning the divorce, holding up a coin for Matthew to see. Matthew tells him that More is so anxious that he turns white as a sheet whenever the subject is mentioned. Cromwell pays Matthew for his information and beckons Rich to come with him as he leaves. Rich protests that he knows nothing, and heads off in the other direction. Meanwhile, Chapuys has returned.
From Matthew, he learns that More is a religiously observant. Chapuys also pays off Matthew and leaves. Finally, Rich returns and asks Matthew what he told Chapuys. Matthew tells him, and Rich points out that the information is common knowledge. Matthew explains that he told Chapuys what he wanted to hear. Alone, Matthew addresses the audience, reveling in the fact that he tricked three men into paying him off for little bits of common knowledge. He imagines that the men will make a big deal and a big secret out of their discoveries so that they do not feel duped. Analysis: Scenes five–six
Wolsey’s death sets into motion the clash between More and the king that has been building for the play’s first four scenes. The Common Man’s announcement in Act One, scene five, that Wolsey’s death was effectively the result of Henry’s displeasure foreshadows the dangers of More’s appointment as Wolsey’s replacement. We realize that More must now take on the prickly situation of securing Henry’s divorce or else find a way to avoid the same dire consequence that Wolsey faced. The dramatic use of a spotlight to focus attention on Wolsey’s garments, which are symbolic of More’s new position, underlines the position’s tenuousness.
The Common Man’s joke about the incompatibility of sainthood and high office provides a lighthearted moment that acknowledges the price More pays for his unwillingness to sacrifice his own conscience for the sake of his life or the demands of others. The entrances, exits, double talk, bribery, and deceit in scene six showcase the political environment that More will have to contend with as Lord Chancellor. However, the Common Man’s bribing of Chapuys, Cromwell, and Rich poses no actual threat to More but satirizes those who do not know how to operate except through lies and deception.
Matthew takes advantage of all three men by offering them nothing but the most well known information about More. These exchanges link with a later scene in the play when Cromwell suspects a lowly innkeeper, also played by the Common Man, of being even craftier than himself when the innkeeper plays dumb about Cromwell’s conspiracy. The Common Man is both common, meaning universal, and common, meaning lowly. By playing lower-class characters, he serves as a magnet for the double-dealings of kings and cardinals, and in doing so he questions the assumptions frequently made about the lower class’s lack of morality.
A sixteenth-century butler, a lower class individual, was assumed to have no moral scruples. Later, More himself takes it for granted that Matthew has betrayed him, showing that even More buys into the stereotypes of his time. Yet Matthew turns bribe-taking into a means of attack. He engages with others in a manner that is dishonest on the surface, but he does so to cheat his bribers with information that is not technically secret. At the same time, the Common Man does not tell More about the people who are plotting against him. Throughout the play, he dupes More’s adversaries, but he does so only for the audience’s eyes.
As the play progresses, the Common Man (or rather, the characters he plays) has a harder time reconciling his acts with More’s kind treatment of him. Although the Common Man plays many roles, all his characters develop in a unified fashion, as though they were one person. Act One, scene seven Summary I neither could nor would rule my King. (Pleasantly) But there’s a little . . . little, area . . . where I must rule myself. It’s very little—less to him than a tennis court. Back at More’s home in Chelsea, Alice, Norfolk, and Margaret prepare for King Henry’s arrival, but More is nowhere to be found.
When Matthew appears, all three ask him where More might be, but as usual, Matthew says he knows nothing. Norfolk complains that More has taken things too far, that More disrespects the king, and that no good can come of it. Suddenly, More arrives, having been occupied at vespers (evening prayers). He is dressed simply, and everyone fretfully tries to get him to put on more appropriate attire, including his chain of office. When Norfolk chastises More for disrespecting the king and his office, More retorts that he is not dishonoring any office by serving God.
More’s gown is caught up in his stockings, and as Margaret laughs, Alice tries to fix it. When King Henry arrives, More bows but Henry insists he be received in a casual manner. The visit is intended as a surprise, although the family has known about it for some time. More introduces Alice and Margaret, and the king says he has heard that Margaret is a scholar. Modestly dismissing the compliment, Margaret nonetheless goes on to speak Latin with the king. When it becomes clear that her Latin is better than his, the king changes the subject.
He playfully attempts to dance with Margaret, and, commenting on the strength of Norfolk’s legs, he attempts to wrestle with Norfolk. Henry then asks Alice what she has available for dinner. Though Alice has obviously prepared a feast, she promises only a “very simple supper. ” Back on the subject of scholarship, the king mentions his book on the seven sacraments, which, he admits, More helped to write. Then he pulls More aside to discuss the divorce but not before impressing Margaret with the orchestra he has brought with him. Alone, More and Henry discuss Henry’s trip on his new battleship.
More is reverent and modest, and the king beats around the bush, asking More if they are friends and telling him that Wolsey himself named More his successor. When More compliments Wolsey’s ability, Henry complains that Wolsey failed him and needed to be broken. He suggests that Wolsey wanted to be pope, and Henry laments the greedy authority of the English cardinals. Henry, sensing that he has gotten ahead of himself, changes the subject back to his battleship. Just as suddenly, though, he broaches the subject of the divorce, and when More admits that he cannot agree with the divorce, Henry grows angry and then sad.
He cannot understand why his friend would deny his request. More explains that he would readily have his arm cut off if it meant he could agree to the divorce with a clear conscience. More reminds the king that he promised not to bother him about the divorce, knowing full well what he thought. The king, however, pleads that the matter is of grave importance, since the book of Leviticus condemns any man who sleeps with his brother’s wife. His first marriage to Catherine, Henry contends, was sinful, so God is punishing him by denying him an heir. He wonders why More remains staunch when everyone else has consented to the marriage.
More argues that Henry should not need his support if everyone else consents. But Henry admits he needs More to back him up because of his honest reputation. After some more small talk, Henry finally decides that though he will not insist that More consent to the marriage, he will insist that he keep quiet on the issue. Frustrated, Henry opts not to stay for dinner after all, and he leaves in a huff. Alice chastises More for having angered the king. More protests that his opinion is actually of little importance to Henry, but of grave importance to himself.
He says that he does not hope to “rule” the king but that he must absolutely rule himself. He also suggests that the king may have left to be with Anne Boleyn—not because he was angry. Roper arrives and asks More whether he should take a seat that he has been offered in the next Parliament. He admits that his views have changed on Church reform. He still has concerns about Catholicism but considers the Catholic Church itself to be sacred. When Roper grows passionate in his stance against reformations like the one Henry is implementing, More reminds Roper that as chancellor, there are “certain things” he cannot hear.
Roper accuses More of corruption, saying that More, in maintaining his position, has learned to flatter the court and the king. Rich arrives and behaves in a defensive manner. He is suspicious to find that Roper has heard of him and wrongly suspects that he is no longer welcome in More’s home. Rich tells More that Cromwell and Chapuys have been checking up on him, and he mentions Matthew’s duplicity. More tells him he is not surprised—such information-gathering is to be expected. When Rich breaks down and asks again for employment, More turns him away.
This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s. Everyone tells More to arrest Rich, but More reminds them that Rich has done nothing illegal. More and Roper argue over the respective places of man’s and God’s laws in human society. Roper accuses More of believing only in the law, not in God. More asserts that he believes in God but that man’s law offers a safe haven in an uncertain universe. He says, “God’s my god. . . . But I find him rather too subtle. . . . I don’t know where he is nor what he wants. ” More tells Roper that while living on earth, he puts his faith in the law.
Moreover, More claims that he stands on firm ground and that Roper is lost at sea, with his “seagoing principles. ” Again, More denies Roper his daughter’s hand in marriage. More exits forcefully, but reenters to apologize for criticizing Roper harshly. He then explains to Alice and Margaret that he considers himself to be safe in the matter of the divorce because he has not broken any law or disobeyed the king. Analysis This lengthy scene contains King Henry’s only appearance in the play, and he proves to be an arrogant and unpredictable man.
Henry is polite and friendly until he feels that his own power or needs are being undermined. Just as readily as Henry expresses his feelings of friendship for More, he shouts and storms offstage. When Henry first meets Margaret, he tactfully compliments her scholarship, but as soon as she shows that she knows more Latin than he does, he changes the subject. The entire company plays along with the idea that Henry’s visit is a surprise, even though both sides show that preparation for such a visit is required and expected. Henry’s visit shows that he values appearances over truth.
Yet he demands both simultaneously, even though they often contradict one another. For example, he requires More and his family to bear the burden of planning for his surprise and of convincing him that they are indeed surprised. He expects Margaret to take a compliment tactfully and at the same time to hide the fact that it is tact that keeps her quiet. Unlike the Machiavellians Cromwell and Rich, King Henry is not simply content to do whatever is most convenient for his political advantage. Instead, he wants to do whatever he likes and at the same time feel morally upright.
If the other characters can choose only between their personal advancement (chosen by Cromwell and Rich) and their conscience (More), Henry believes that he can have both, by using his power to influence others to ease his conscience. The most important instance of Henry needing moral affirmation comes when he demands More’s approval of the divorce and marriage because More is reputed to be a moral man. More’s honest reputation means that his consent could prove the king right; his lack of consent could prove the king wrong.
Bolt suggests that Henry needs More’s approval for private as well as public reasons. Henry’s immature, insecure temperament suggests he needs More to ease his own guilt. This idea is supported by Henry’s comment that it will be fine if More simply keeps quiet. The comment suggests that Henry needs More’s approval more for the calm it will give his conscience than for public opinion. The exchange between More and Roper reveals the seriousness with which More does his job. More tells Roper that he must watch what he says and remember that More is now chancellor.
The play as a whole criticizes people who claim that they are just doing their job as an excuse that allows them to justify behaving in an immoral way in order to gain advancement. More shows there is nothing wrong with devotion to one’s employment, as long as doing one’s job does not violate one’s conscience. Imagery of land and water is used to illustrate the difference between More’s law-abiding nature and Roper’s religious idealism. In praising the law, More compares it to a forest, which is sturdy and provides protection. He says that England is planted “thick with laws from coast to coast—Man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down . . d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? ” More emphasizes the inconstancy of Roper’s idealism by calling his morals “seagoing principles,” invoking the image of the shifting and unstable sea to stress the dangers of looking to God, the unknowable, as a moral guide. More wishes to rely upon what he knows to be certain and what he can perceive here on earth. He believes in God, but he does not pretend to understand God, except as God is manifest in human laws and justice. Act One, scene eight Summary The Common Man enters as the publican, or innkeeper, of a pub called the Loyal Subject.
He says that he is not a deep thinker like More and that he should not be expected to act with deep principles. Cromwell arrives at the Loyal Subject and asks the publican if his pub is a good place to launch a conspiracy. Cromwell wants to insure that there are not “too many little dark corners,” and the publican, bewildered, answers that there are only four corners in the room. Cromwell suspects that the man is being disingenuous, and asks the publican if he knows who Cromwell is. When the publican replies that he does not, Cromwell accuses him of being too tactful—of saying less than he knows.
Cromwell beckons for Rich to come into the room, and he announces that he has secured the position of collector of revenues for York, which he will offer to Rich in exchange for information. Cromwell makes a joke at the king’s expense, and he gets Rich to admit that he can be bought. Rich’s admission is j