The curtain rises to reveal the Common Man sitting on a dark stage with a basket full of props. He admits that he doesn’t know the exact right words to say to introduce the play, and suggests that a King or a Cardinal would give a more eloquent introduction.
The Common Man provides a prologue, or a short speech introducing some of the themes and ideas dealt with in the play. Although he suggests that someone with higher social status would give a better speech, he follows in the tradition of many of Shakespeare’s plays, in which common men (or women) introduced stories about members of the noble class.
The Common Man calls himself “Old Adam,” and assembles the Steward’s costume from his basket. As he speaks, the lights come up on the stage, revealing a table. The Common Man, now the Steward, begins to unpack his basket. He takes out a jug of alcohol and several goblets, including Thomas More’s silver cup, and sets the newly revealed dinner table. He asserts, “The Sixteenth Century is the Century of the Common Man. Like all other centuries.”
Although the Common Man is, as his name suggests, common and unexceptional, this provides him (in some ways) safety and longevity. Unlike the upper-class protagonists, he is at least safe from court intrigue and political infighting. And unlike the protagonists, who are in powerful but fragile positions, he knows that commoners like himself will endure for centuries, whether they are remembered by history or not—starting with “Adam,” the first man according to the Bible.
The newly set table suggests that we are now in Thomas More’s house in London. More and Richard Rich enter, clearly in the middle of an argument. Rich asserts that “Every man has his price!” but More gently disagrees. Rich argues that even if a man can’t be bought with material things, he can be manipulated. He also suggests that if a man is made to suffer, he can be bought off by promising to take the suffering away.
From the very beginning, Rich and More stand in stark contrast to one another. More, who is wealthy, would happily give away his wealth to maintain his strict moral code and personal integrity. Meanwhile Rich, who is poor, would happily trade his conscience and his morals for a prestigious position and the money that comes with it.
More notices that Rich’s argument sounds like the one Machiavelli, a contemporary diplomat and writer, makes in his book The Prince. More asks Rich who told him to read Machiavelli—it seems out of character for him. Rich admits that Thomas Cromwell recommended it. Rich says that Cromwell has promised to help him, presumably with his social status. More is surprised, as he wasn’t aware the two even knew each other, but Rich points out that More doesn’t know everything about him.
Niccolò Machiavelli was a 16th century writer and philosopher most famous for his work The Prince, which argues that immoral behavior can and should have a place in politics if it gets one the desired result. Rich, who cares more about himself than advancing any specific political agenda, and Cromwell, who will advance his political agenda regardless of human cost, are poster children for Machiavellianism. In this moment Rich also reveals for the first time that he isn’t as loyal a friend as More had assumed.
Rich complains that although he’s been in London for seven months, and made many acquaintances, he still isn’t in a position of power. Rich wonders aloud if More counts him as an acquaintance or a friend. More tells him that they are engaged in a friendship. Rich however, doesn’t refer to their relationship as a mutual friendship, instead calling himself “A friend of Sir Thomas.”
Rich is more concerned with what can be extracted from a friendship than with the friendship itself. Instead of referring to his reciprocal relationship with More as a “friendship,” he talks about being “a friend of” More. In this way, Rich makes it clear that he is only concerned with what More can offer him as a high-powered ally, and not what he can do for More in return—and certainly not whether or not they actually like each other.
More reminds Rich that he could have a teaching position if he wanted, but Rich isn’t interested. More tries to explain that he struggles to navigate coercion and corruption, as his influence comes with built-in moral dilemmas. He shows Rich a silver cup which he was given as an attempted bribe. More feels corrupted just by keeping it in his house, and so gives it to Rich, who happily accepts. Although it’s a gift, Rich admits that he will immediately sell it for luxurious clothing like More’s.
More’s political position comes with power, which in turns comes with people trying to bribe and manipulate him. For More, who is just trying to do his civic duty, these bribes are an unwelcome distraction. For Rich, however, the bribery is appealing. He only wants to gain money and influence, and doesn’t mind if he is corrupted in the process.
The Duke of Norfolk, More’s wife Alice, and More’s daughter Margaret enter arguing about Norfolk’s recent hunting trip. Norfolk claims his hunting falcon was able to dive for its prey even though it could not see through the clouds, while Alice thinks this seems impossible. After a minute, their conversation turns to philosophy. Rich again praises Machiavelli’s The Prince, and defends it, along with Thomas Cromwell, whose aggressive political strategies both Norfolk and More dislike.
Alice and Margaret’s banter with the Duke of Norfolk demonstrates their self-possession, education, and intellect, which sets them apart from many women of the period. Once again, Rich reveals that although More believed him to be a close friend, he is hiding many secrets, including his relationship with Cromwell and his political ideology. Machiavelli essentially invented the concept of political scheming, a strategy both Rich and Cromwell will invest much of their time in later in the play.
Now that they are on the topic of Thomas Cromwell, Norfolk reveals to the group that Cromwell has been promoted to the Cardinal’s Secretary. Everyone is shocked. Alice asks, “a farrier’s son?” but Norfolk reminds her that the Cardinal himself is the son of a butcher. Rich admits he likes Cromwell, and More suggests that Rich can use his connection to Cromwell instead of his friendship with More to advance himself.
A farrier is someone who puts the shoes on horses. This is a lower class job, and so it is impressive that Cromwell has experienced so much social mobility in his lifetime—from near poverty to a position in the royal court. Although Alice expresses surprise at Cromwell’s humble upbringing, Norfolk makes it clear that one’s former status (be it low or high) is less important than a person’s status in the present moment. More also begins to realize how tenuous his relationship with Rich is, and seems to understand that Rich uses friendships as a way to personally advance himself.
The Steward enters with a letter summoning More to the Cardinal’s office, although it is now eleven at night. As More leaves he sees that Rich is unhappy. More suggests that Norfolk employ Rich in some clerical position. Rich thanks More, and More once again tells him, “Be a teacher.”
As Rich leaves, the Steward comments on the new goblet More has given Rich. After Rich has left the stage, the Steward observes that More gives too much away. He wonders what More will do when he’s asked “for something that he wants to keep,” hypothesizing “he’ll be out of practice.”
Because More values physical luxury less than uncorrupted morals, he is happy to give away this expensive cup, and, eventually, nearly all of his physical belongings. Rich, however, is happy to compromise himself for some silver. Later, the Steward’s prediction turns out to be false—More does find something he wants to keep: his conscience and religious devotion. To keep these things, however, he must sacrifice his life.
The scene changes, and Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More meet in Wolsey’s office. It is now past one in the morning. Wolsey has More read over a dispatch to a Cardinal in Rome, in which the King requests that the Pope annul his marriage to his wife, Catherine. More doesn’t believe the marriage can be lawfully annulled, but he refuses to say so. Instead, he wishes there were “something simple” in the middle of the situation, and Wolsey responds that More is “a constant regret” because of his “horrible moral squint,” and that with “Just a little common sense” More “could have been a statesman.”
This is the first moment that More chooses to stay silent rather than publically approve the King’s behavior. This frustrates Wolsey, a career politician, who believes that personal moral convictions have no place in politics. Wolsey thinks decisions should be made based on what is best for the nation, not personal opinion. More, although religious, finds religious law (essentially, morality from a divine perspective) confusing, which is why he wishes for “something simple” that can help guide his decision. Wolsey wishes More would stop looking for answers in God’s law and instead turn to immediate matters of state.
More and Wolsey hear the trumpet announcing the King. He’s returning from an evening with his mistress, Anne Boleyn. Wolsey asks how More is going to make sure the King has a legitimate son, and reminds him that if the King has no heir, the reign of the Tudors will end. More says he prays daily for the King to have a son. Wolsey counters that More is praying for a miracle. Catherine is barren, but Anne is not, and so it is in the best interest of the state to allow Henry to divorce and remarry. Wolsey once again asks for More’s support in securing the King a divorce.
More must carefully balance his loyalty to the King and his loyalty to his own conscience. He is devoted to the King and wants his reign to continue, but does not want to approve steps that will, in his mind, go against God and the Church. Although Wolsey is a Cardinal, which makes him a member of the Catholic clergy, he takes his position as an almost entirely political one, and wants to ensure Henry will have male heirs for policy’s sake. In contrast, More sees praying as a personal moral loophole—he can hope that Henry will have male heirs, but he will not have to enact policy that he finds morally troublesome.
Wolsey acknowledges More’s right to his own conscience, but points out that as a statesman, he should consider the fate of the state. Wolsey admits that the actions they must take are “regrettable,” but believes they are necessary for the sake of England; without an heir, England will have a war of succession. Wolsey wonders how More “can obstruct those measures for the sake of [his] own, private, conscience.” More replies, “when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties…they lead their country by a short route to chaos. And we shall have my prayers to fall back on.” He then admits that he would love to live in a country governed only by prayers.
Wolsey sees More’s silence as More privileging his personal preferences over the fate of the entire country. More, meanwhile, sees his silence as a way to protest what he sees as a massive moral mistake—Henry’s desired divorce. While Wolsey believes that personal consciences get in the way of governing, More finds that if you have strong personal integrity it can help you govern, allowing you to make decisions you truly believe are correct and can feel confident in.
Wolsey asks More who should be the next Cardinal. More suggests a man named Tunstall, but says he would rather be Cardinal than allow Thomas Cromwell to take the position. Wolsey tells More that they are enemies for the moment, and that he should keep this in mind if he is interested in being the next Cardinal. Wolsey tells More he’d be better off as a cleric, and More reminds Wolsey that the position he, Wolsey, holds is in fact a religious one.
Although Wolsey’s position is a religious one, he is more politically than spiritually minded. Ironically it is More, a public servant in a relatively secular position, who is more spiritually than politically minded.
The scene changes to the banks of a river. More calls for a boat and the Common Man appears dressed as a Boatman. More tries to get the Boatman to take him home, but the Boatman is off duty. As they’re talking, Cromwell steps out from behind an arch on the stage. He’s on his way to talk to the Cardinal, but clearly been listening to More’s conversation. He wonders if More left the Cardinal in “his laughing mood,” but More explains that he did not. Cromwell tells More he admires him. The Boatman tells More that people refer to Cromwell as “the coming man.”
The river represents God’s law and the complicated nature of religion. More, who cannot find a boat, is out of step with popular religious sentiment—England will soon have its own Church, separate from the Catholic Church, and More is unable and unwilling to make the transition. Although More’s life would be much simpler if he could simply cave and go along with Wolsey and the King’s plans, he cannot compromise his conscience. When Cromwell asks if the Cardinal was in a “laughing mood,” what he really is asking is if More has approved the divorce. Although More does not state his stance explicitly, he makes it clear that he still stands in opposition.
Before More can start on his way home, the diplomat Chapuys appears on the bank of the river. Chapuys represents the King of Spain’s interests, and reminds More that the King of Spain will be insulted by any insult paid to his relative, Catherine. Chapuys wonders if More and the Cardinal parted “amicably” and “in agreement,” which is his way of asking if More helped the Cardinal secure the King’s divorce. More says that they only parted “amicably.” Chapuys understands that this means More does not support the divorce. He calls More a “good man,” but More says Chapuys doesn’t know him well enough to make that claim.
In Chapuys’ mind, a good man is a man who is on the same side of the issue as he is. In this case, because More will not approve Henry’s divorce, a stance that benefits Spain, Chapuys sees More as good. For More, however, everything is more complicated. He isn’t opposing the divorce because of a treasonous allegiance with Catherine or Spain, but instead because he is morally opposed on a personal level. Although many would argue that More is a good man because of his moral integrity, Chapuys calls him good because he believes they are politically allied, united by the allegiances of men instead of under God and conscience.
More turns to the Boatman, who agrees to row him home. They discuss the river. More wonders if it is filling with dirt, but the Boatman replies “not in the middle, sir. There’s a channel there getting deeper all the time.” The Boatman says his wife is “losing her shape…losing it fast,” and More jokes “so are we all.”
Although many people at the time are sacrificing religious conviction for political gain, the deepening center of the river represents More’s increasing commitment to his moral compass. Even as the Boatman jokes that everyone is losing their shape, More’s stance is becoming more rigid by the day.
Back at home, although it is very late at night, More finds Margaret is still awake. Her suitor, Will Roper, is also at the house. Margaret tells More that Roper wants to marry her. Will tells More that although his family is not involved with the palace, he comes from a good background, and More agrees that his pedigree is fine. Still, More forbids Margaret from marrying him, and explains that as long as Will is a “heretic” More will not bless the marriage.
More likes Will Roper generally, but he does not respect his opinions because they change so rapidly. Although More is in conflict with the King and the English government, he has remained committed to a single side of the issue. In contrast, Roper is always in conflict with a new group because he has no real moral agenda as of yet.
Will argues that he is not a heretic, but that the Church itself is heretical. He sympathizes with Martin Luther and The Protestant Reformation, and believes that the Catholic Church is corrupt. More counters that Roper is constantly changing his mind regarding religion, and so his opinions can’t be trusted. More then sends Roper home. More tells Margaret that Roper is like his father, who just liked being contrary and “swimming in the opposite direction” of popular opinion.
There are few things More (a person with steadfast integrity who puts a great deal of thought into his political and religious stances) respects less than a person who has no personal integrity. More sees Will as heretical for the sake of being heretical, without any true beliefs. The symbol of water is also used again to represent the difficult and unknowable nature of morality and religion. Will doesn’t seem to care what his religious position is, as long as it goes against public opinion.
Alice wakes up and joins More and Margaret. The two women want to know why Wolsey called More to meet. They tell More that Norfolk thinks More will be Chancellor if Wolsey dies. More tells them he doesn’t want to be Chancellor, and refuses to talk about it further, pointing out that “there will be no new Chancellors while Wolsey lives.” More is also getting sick, and Alice brings him tea, reminding him that all men, both great and poor, can get sick. The Common Man then enters the stage and announces that Wolsey has died, and Thomas More has been appointed the next Lord Chancellor. Wolsey died on his way to the Tower of London “under charge of High Treason.”
More doesn’t have any great political ambition, though he does have a sense of his political duty. He doesn’t particularly want to be Chancellor, but will assume the role if he is called upon to accept it. Alice’s reminder that all men can get sick is both a literal and figurative reminder—any man, no matter how high up, can be laid low, either by illness or by his rivals. Similarly, so can any man of high morals eventually be corrupted.
The sets change and the stage becomes Hampton Court, the royal palace. Richard Rich passes Thomas Cromwell in a stairwell, and the two begin to talk. Cromwell wants to know what Rich is doing in Hampton, and Rich explains that he is currently working for Norfolk, who came to the castle to hunt with the King. Cromwell comments on changing fortunes; Wolsey was once high-powered but died a traitor, and Rich, once a political unknown, is rising quickly. Cromwell describes Thomas More and Rich as friends, which Rich is hesitant to confirm. Rich instead describes More as someone who helped him once professionally. Cromwell wonders if Rich has any allegiances to More or Norfolk, or if he is open to bribes.
Although Rich has been helped by More, who recommended him to Norfolk, and by Norfolk, who has been happily employing him for some period of time, he has no real allegiance to either of them. His resistance to Cromwell’s use of the word “friend” demonstrates that he views all of his relationships as political, not personal ones, and values his acquaintances based only on what they can provide for him.
Rich doesn’t answer Cromwell’s question because Chapuys and his Attendant interrupt their conversation. Chapuys wonders what exactly Cromwell’s job entails, and Cromwell explains that he is the “King’s Ear,” and that “when the King wants something done, I do it.” He explains that the legal system of Justices, Chancellors, and Admirals are all written into the constitution, but he has a role outside of the law.
Cromwell is committed neither to God’s law nor to man’s law. He is an enforcer of the law of the King, which is based primarily on the King’s desires. Sometimes these desires correspond with what is best for the state, but sometimes they do not. Cromwell’s political allegiance is ostensibly to the King, but truly it is to himself. He simply understands that he can advance himself more swiftly if he works for the most powerful man in the country, and caters to his every whim.
Cromwell reveals that the King will soon visit More in his home and ask him for another answer regarding the divorce. The King will travel in his own new ship, built to his specifications, and which the King will steer himself. Chapuys is surprised, as he knows More has already made his opinion regarding the divorce known. He insists that More “is a good son of the Church!” and will not approve the divorce. Cromwell replies “Sir Thomas is a man,” suggesting that any man can be persuaded to change his mind.
Once again, Chapuys assumes that More’s opposition to the King’s divorce, which for More is based on questions of personal conscience, is in fact support for Spain. By staying silent, More’s motives are up for public interpretation. Cromwell, meanwhile, believes that even a man with convictions like More can somehow be manipulated. The symbol of ships and water reappears. By having his own boat constructed and steering it himself, the King is metaphorically taking control of the religion of his country and therefore the legitimacy of his marriage.
More’s Steward enters. Clearly both Cromwell and Chapuys want to talk to him. The two men end their conversation, and each says “good day,” expecting the other to leave, but neither does. Eventually, Chapuys caves in. He pretends to leave, but gestures to the Steward to follow him. Instead of fully exiting he hides onstage with his Attendant, within earshot but out of sight. Rich remains onstage, unsure of where to go. Cromwell presses the Steward for information about More. The Steward reveals that lately More has seemed frightened and nervous. Cromwell then leaves the stage, and gestures for Rich to follow him. Rich defensively claims that he has no gossip to share.
The Steward tells Cromwell exactly what he wants to hear—that the pressure Cromwell has begun to place on More is working, and he lives in a constant state of anxiety. From what we’ve seen (and will see) of More this is partially true, but his primary source of anxiety is protecting his family and staying true to his conscience, not any punishment Cromwell might enact. For once, Rich has some reservations. Although he likely does have gossip to share about More, he holds back, perhaps because he dislikes feeling like an informant on the same level as the Steward, or perhaps because, however briefly, his conscience is making an appearance.
Chapuys and his Attendant reemerge from behind the curtain to talk to the Steward. The Steward reveals that More prays and goes to confession often. Chapuys knows the Steward is serving as an informant to both him and Cromwell, and he tells the Steward it is impossible to be loyal to both of them. The Steward explains that in fact he is not loyal to Cromwell, to Chapuys, or to his master, Thomas More, but instead he is faithful to God. He reveals that he is wearing an enormous cross, described as a “caricature” of the cross Chapuys himself wears.
Again the Steward tells Chapuys what he wants to hear. He isn’t lying, but he is giving Chapuys the portion of truth that he is most interested in. This portion reaffirms More’s religious convictions, which Chapuys continually misreads as loyalty to the Catholic Church and Spain, but is in fact a more abstract moral sense of right and wrong. The Steward’s cross, although clearly cartoonish to the audience, reads as real to Chapuys, who sees only what he wants to see.
Rich reenters after Chapuys and his Attendant have left the stage. He gives the Steward a coin and asks him what Chapuys wanted to know. The Steward repeats to Rich what he told Chapuys, and adds that he just tells people what they want to hear. As Rich turns to go, the Steward points out the direction that Cromwell went, assuming Rich would want to follow him. Angrily, Rich purposefully exits the stage in the opposite direction. The Steward, now alone onstage, takes a moment to speak directly to the audience. He explains that he shares common knowledge like it’s gossip, and doesn’t trade in real secrets. He says it is important “not to get out of your depth,” for “when I can’t touch the bottom I’ll go deaf, blind, and dumb.”
The Steward truly has no allegiances, except to himself and his own well-being. He happily receives payments for public information, but is careful not to divulge any true secrets that could be traced back to him. Like the Steward, Rich feels no need to honor any one alliance, and he’s temporarily upset by the perception that he is in some way affiliated with or indebted to Cromwell. Note also that the Steward uses the symbolic language of water and land. Although some might argue that his behavior is immoral, he makes sure it never becomes so immoral that he loses his way or puts himself in danger, either physically or spiritually.
The scene transitions to More’s house. Alice, Margaret, and Norfolk are looking for More. The King is arriving soon on an unofficial visit (that everyone nonetheless knows about) and More cannot be found. More eventually shows up—he’s been praying. He is wearing a cassock, which Norfolk, Margaret, and Alice make him take off. More seems unconcerned by Henry’s “surprise” visit, and when Norfolk accuses him of “dishonor[ing] the King and his office,” argues that worshiping God is important, and shouldn’t be “a dishonor to any office.”
More’s cassock is a robe traditionally worn by priests and clergymen, and is thus a physical symbol of his commitment to his faith. Ironically, although Henry will soon declare himself Head of the Church of England and is fighting for a divorce on religious grounds, he is not a particularly religious man. More’s statement that worshiping God shouldn’t be “a dishonor to any office” is fair, but it also will not prove to be true. Because More worships God, he resists Henry’s divorce, which is seen as an act of political betrayal.
King Henry arrives by boat, which he himself navigated. More, Margaret, and Alice all pretend that his visit has surprised them. The King flirts with Margaret, and praises her intelligence, but is unhappy when she proves herself to be better at Latin than he is. He then asks Margaret if she can dance, and praises her legs, while mocking Norfolk’s “wrestler’s leg.” Despite this, the King argues that he could beat Norfolk in a fight. The King then tells Margaret that he, too, is a scholar. She knows of the book he wrote, and the King jokes that More, a known but unofficial collaborator, heavily contributed.
Henry’s boat, steered by him, represents the new control he’s taken over English Christianity. Indeed, he will soon found the Church of England, over which he will have total power. The way he controls his boat, and England’s religion, is the same way he hopes to soon control More, who has yet to approve of his divorce. Although he is literally the most powerful man in England, Henry still needs external validation—his conversations with Margaret and Norfolk demonstrate that even a king can be insecure.
The King finally turns his attentions to More. At first he doesn’t talk about politics. Instead he talks about the “great experience” he had steering his eponymous ship, “The Great Harry,” down the river. Finally, he turns to court affairs, and tells More he is grateful he has “a friend for my Chancellor,” although More is “readier to be friends…than he was to be Chancellor.”
Once again Henry’s ship is used to represent his religious power. By describing his relationship with More as a friendship, the King exerts a new pressure on his Chancellor. Although More won’t cave to political pressure, the King knows how deeply More values his friendships. This makes More’s position even tougher — as an employee and a friend he doesn’t want to disappoint the King, but he still has the same convictions as before.
Henry and More discuss the late Cardinal Wolsey. More comments that Wolsey was “a statesman of incomparable ability.” Henry argues that because Wolsey failed him, he could not have been a great statesman. Henry criticizes his pride, and his ambition; Henry was convinced Wolsey wanted to be Pope. The King reveals he felt trapped and controlled while the Catholic Church and its Cardinals remained influential in England.
In an irrational leap of logic similar to one Chapuys made earlier, the King assumes that because he disagreed with Wolsey, Wolsey must have been a fundamentally bad (and even unskilled) man. Ironically, the King criticizes Wolsey’s pride and ambition, even though the ever-ambitious Cromwell is one of his closest confidantes. A key difference is that Cromwell’s ambition makes him more subservient, whereas Wolsey’s ambition made him act independently.
Although he has promised not to, Henry once again brings up his divorce. More says that although he’s been thinking about it since their last conversation, he hasn’t come to any conclusions. This frustrates the King, even when More pledges his loyalty. The King explains that he needs More’s approval, because, as it is, he “stand[s] in peril of [his] soul.” The King uses the passage in Leviticus which says “Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife,” to invalidate his own first marriage. When More explains that he thinks it’s a complicated situation best left to the Catholic Church itself, Henry responds angrily. He says he doesn’t need the Pope to tell him that he’s sinned; he can tell for himself. He says that his inability to have a son is a sign from God that his marriage is illegitimate.
The King needs More’s approval because he sees More as an external conscience. As long as More disapproves, the King feels like he is sinning, which torments him in this life, and could potentially damn him in the afterlife as well. The King has attempted to manipulate the Bible to fit his own needs. Although he received a religious exemption that allowed him to go through with his first marriage, he now wants to cherry pick which parts of religion are relevant. The exemption he previously attempted to make from the Leviticus quote now becomes his argument for again circumventing Biblical rules.
More wonders why, if Henry is so sure of himself, he needs More’s approval. The King explains that many of his followers lie to him because he is king and they respect him, like Norfolk, or else because they see the ways that he can benefit them, like Cromwell. But More, Henry explains, isn’t like that, and is sincere and honest, and can be counted on for an honest opinion. He then asks More for his thoughts on the music that had been playing earlier during his arrival. More suspects that the King wrote this music himself, and praises it.
The King appreciates that More has no ambition, or that his ambition is at least tempered enough to keep him honest. However, More’s integrity, which the King praises and which motivates him to seek More’s opinion, is also the very thing that prevents More from giving the King the answer he desires.
The King tells More his “conscience is [his] own affair,” and that he, the King, will leave More alone as long as he remains silent, and does not oppose him publicly. Yet Henry warns that any noise, any words, signs, letters, or pamphlets will count as treason. He tells More that anyone who claims Catherine is his wife is a liar and a traitor. In a final gesture, the King attempts to bribe More. He tells him, “If you could come with me, you are the man I would soonest raise,” but More is flustered and cannot respond. Although he had planned to stay for dinner, Henry observes that “the tide will be changing,” and leaves early.
More’s silence, which he has been using to protect himself, has backfired and frustrated the King. The King’s threats show that even though More’s silence is meant to signal obedience to the crown, if not to every decision made by it, he is close to being branded a traitor. However, once again More stays true to his conscience, and steadfast against the promise of bribes. When Henry refers to the “tide” he means both that the dominant religion in the country will be shifting (from Catholicism to Anglicanism) and that More will soon be falling out of favor if he doesn’t change his mind.
Alice is upset that More has not been more cooperative. She asks him to “Be ruled!” or else rule the King by actually stating his opinion. More explains that although he is the King’s loyal subject, he needs to have some control over his own life, and his own conscience. Alice urges him to “stay friends” with the King. More says he’ll do his best to smile and flatter.
With the King, a “friendship” is more than a normal acquaintance. By staying the King’s friend, More stays in his good graces politically, which will allow him and his family to live peacefully and happily. Unfortunately, unlike in a real friendship, the power is so imbalanced that a disagreement has the potential to destroy More’s entire life.
Suddenly Will Roper arrives, flustered. He has been offered a seat in Parliament, and because of his “inconvenient conscience” doesn’t know whether or not to take it. More suggests that Roper would be a good fit because of his heretical religious views, which are in line with the new religious reforms the King is making, and which More privately sees as heretical. But Roper admits he’s become more moderate recently.
Will Roper, who More criticized earlier for changing his opinions rapidly, has again rapidly changed his opinion. Once a steadfast Protestant, he’s now become more Catholic. Still, he manages to go against the tide of popular sentiment—as England is on the verge of its own Protestant Revolution.
The Steward enters, and announces that Richard Rich, has come to visit uninvited. Rich is in a strange mood, and complains that he feels unwelcome in More’s house. He confesses that Cromwell has been asking questions about More. Rich says that More’s Steward has been questioned both by Cromwell and Chapuys, which More already knows and does not seem to mind. Rich acts guilty, and asks More to employ him, promising to be trustworthy. More declines, on the grounds that Rich can’t even be trusted to act in his own best interests, much less the interests of an employer.
Rich has been feeling guilty about his role in More’s persecution. More was his first friend in London, and set him on his way politically, and so he feels some sense of loyalty. Rich’s attempted repentance seems based less on his concerns for More’s well-being, however, and more on his desire to clear his own guilty conscience. More’s comment that Rich can’t even act in his own best interest points to the fact that Rich is putting himself in political jeopardy by trying to rekindle his friendship with More.
More’s family wants to arrest Rich. Margaret thinks he should be arrested for being bad, as that is God’s law, but More counters, “Then God can arrest him.” Roper argues that More is setting man’s law above God’s, but More explains that he finds man’s law simple to follow, whereas God’s law is too complicated. He explains, “The currents and eddies of right and wrong…I can’t navigate. I’m no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I’m a forester.”
Although a religious man, More finds God’s law—the law of conscience and divine morality—too difficult to follow or understand. He finds man’s law to be more reliable when making moral decisions. More uses the metaphor of God’s law as a confusing, twisting river, whereas man’s law is an easily traversable island. He can reliably judge someone according to man’s law, but worries he would not be able to do the same using God’s—instead, he can only try his best to be moral and hope for the best.
Roper says he’d “cut down every law in England” if it meant he could somehow indict the Devil, but More argues that laws are important for the safety of mankind, even if it means that the Devil also gets some protection. Roper then argues that the law seems to be More’s god, which offends More. He tells Roper that he will “hide in the thickets of the law” with Margaret, where she will be safe and Roper will not be able to woo her with his constantly changing “seagoing principles.” More repeats that he believes he is entirely safe, as he is not on the wrong side of the law.
More believes in the strength and endurance of the laws of mankind. He thinks they are important to maintain because even if sometimes they let a guilty man go, the majority of the time they serve to protect the innocent. Roper, meanwhile, would happily break the law if he thought he was doing what God wanted. More would not, as he doesn’t presume to know what God really wants. More’s criticism of Roper’s “seagoing principles” refers to his constantly changing religious stances.
The scene changes to a pub. The Common Man enters as himself, but then dresses himself from a basket on stage, and sets up a table with mugs and stools. He has transformed himself into a Publican (Inkeeper). He jokes that he can barely understand what More is saying because he is so common. Cromwell enters the pub and asks for a private room. Rich joins him, and they meet in a backroom. Cromwell shares court gossip with Rich, who promises not to repeat it, because this conversation is “in friendship.” Cromwell wonders if Rich is really capable of keeping a secret, and Rich clarifies that it “would depend what I was offered.” Cromwell doesn’t necessarily respect Rich, but he likes that he is so open about being so corruptible.
Rich, a reliably bad friend, has decided that he and Cromwell are true friends, a designation Cromwell finds useless. Rich has generally used “friendship” as a way to extract something from acquaintances, whether it’s money, influence, or power. Cromwell, meanwhile, sees everything as political, and has no use for even the façade of friendship. Rich continues to prove that he has very little integrity and will compromise himself morally for a bribe. Ironically, Rich’s constantly shifting allegiances please Cromwell, who likes that Rich is so open about his loyalty being available for purchase.
Cromwell offers Rich a position as Collector of Revenues for York Diocese, if Rich will help the King secure his divorce. Cromwell explains that his role as a royal administrator is to make sure the courts run smoothly and conveniently, and so if the King wants a new wife, he will make it as easy as possible for the King to get a new wife. He continues that if the King’s life is more convenient, so is everybody else’s. Rich accepts Cromwell’s offer, but is surprised by his good fortune. Cromwell observes that Rich seems depressed. Rich explains that he feels like he’s lost his innocence, though Cromwell suspects he lost it a long time ago. They both believe that Thomas More has an innocent conscience, but Cromwell nevertheless begins to plot to manipulate him. Cromwell believes that since More has sense, he can be frightened. To demonstrate how a man can be manipulated due to fear, Cromwell holds Rich’s hand over a candle flame and burns him.
Cromwell’s allegiance is not to the laws of God or man, but to the King himself. His explanation of his duties also suggests that the King himself rules not based on any internal moral compass, but based on what is easiest and best for him personally. Although Rich has spent the entire play so far seeking out bribes, this is the first moment where he explicitly feels like he has “lost his innocence.” Readers will note, however, that he has been selling out his “friends” for essentially the entire play, and has been vocal about his openness to bribery for nearly as long, even before opportunities for bribery presented themselves to him. In the final moment of the Act Cromwell, who Rich had momentarily mistaken for a friend, proves that he will stop at nothing to get what he wants.