In A Man For All Seasons, silence is powerful, but only because it is open to interpretation. Thomas More uses silence as a tool to protect himself and his family, believing that silence is truly neutral. By speaking, he knows he will incriminate himself, whereas by keeping silent he hopes to remain innocent in the eyes of the law. Unfortunately, to Cromwell, and—more importantly—to Henry VIII, silence is not neutral; it is both malicious and (eventually) treasonous. There is no single agreed upon meaning of silence, and therefore silence represents something different for each of the characters. Because its meaning is changeable, silence can easily be manipulated by those in power.
Thomas More does not want to go against the King, but his conscience prevents him from signing the Act of Supremacy. In silence, More finds a compromise. He can keep his conscience clean, and not incriminate himself, even as he opposes the King. More means his silence to be a truly neutral response—one not meant to cause offense, but also not meant to signal approval. Before he is imprisoned, More tells Alice “in silence is my safety under the law, but my silence must be absolute, it must extend to you.” He believes that, in refusing to take a stance on the King’s marriage, he cannot be persecuted for going against it. By his logic, if he never says anything against the King, people will assume he’s a fully supportive subject. During his trial, More argues that “Silence is not denial.” When Cromwell insists that his silence has “betokened” or indicated some opinion, More responds that his silence should have indicated consent, if anything. He uses the Latin legal phrase “qui tacet consentire,” or “silence gives consent.” Based on this reasoning, by staying silent, More agreed that King Henry has a right to the throne and his title. More acknowledges that he is being punished for his silence, which, ironically, he hoped would protect him. Though he continues to use silence as a neutral response, he understands how it can be, and has been, misinterpreted.
Cromwell distinguishes between different types of silences. He chooses to interpret More’s silence on the validity of the King’s marriage to signify disapproval and denial of the King’s power. Cromwell is aware that More’s silence speaks louder than words. At first, he is sure that More will “line up on the right side,” but he is still upset that More will not outright voice his support for the King. Norfolk wonders why, if More is “silent, why not leave him silent?” to which Cromwell responds, “This ‘silence’ of his is bellowing up and down Europe!” Although More intended his silence to be inconspicuous, it instead is interpreted nationwide as an opinion in itself. Cromwell argues that every man in the court and every man in the country knows More’s opinion of the King’s title even though More has not spoken a word. Therefore, Cromwell argues, More’s silence isn’t silent at all.
Also notable are the numerous characters who stay silent, or remain inactive, when they could speak up. More’s conviction comes not only because Cromwell found enough people to speak against him, but because no one chose to speak up in his favor. Although More’s fate is more or less sealed going into the trial, the nail in the coffin is Richard Rich’s testimony. Rich testifies that More claimed “Parliament has not the competence,” suggesting that More does not believe in the power of the Parliament. More did not say this, and so by inventing this lie—by choosing not to be honest about More’s silence—Rich kills his former friend. Later, the jury is given the opportunity to consider the evidence, but instead they give a guilty verdict without discussion. In this moment, silence indicates a lack of critical thought. This lack of critical thought represents a desire to keep in line with Cromwell and the King. Once again, silence contributes to More’s conviction.
More uses silence as a shield. Unfortunately, though, silence becomes as dangerous as a voiced opinion, because in the absence of speech his motives are left open to interpretation. Silence can potentially act as a shield, but few of the characters that have the opportunity to remain silent and save a life do so. Instead, silence becomes a weapon, useful for whoever has the most persuasive interpretation.
The Meaning of Silence ThemeTracker
The Meaning of Silence Quotes in A Man for All Seasons
Cromwell: Oh no—they’ll talk about the divorce. The King will ask him for an answer.
Chapuys: He has given his answer!
Cromwell: The King will ask him for another.
Chapuys: Sir Thomas is a good son of the Church!
Cromwell: Sir Thomas is a man.
Roper: You are denying the Act of Supremacy!
More: No, I’m not; the Act states that the King—
Roper: —is Supreme Head of the Church in England.
More: Supreme Head of the Church in England—“So far as the law of God allows.” How far the law of God does allow it remains a matter of opinion, since the Act doesn’t state it.
Roper: A legal quibble.
More: Call it what you like, it’s there, thank God.
More: Son Roper, you’re pleased with me I hope?
Roper: Sir, You’ve made a noble gesture.
More: A gesture? It wasn’t possible to continue, Will. I was not able to continue. I would have if I could! I make no gesture! My God, I hope it’s understood I make no gesture! Alice, you don’t think I would do this to you for a gesture! That’s a gesture (Thumbs his nose) That’s a gesture! (Jerks up two fingers) I’m no street acrobat to make gestures! I’m practical!
Roper: You belittle yourself, sir, this was not practical; this was moral!
More: Oh, now I understand you, Will. Morality’s not practical. Morality’s a gesture. A complicated gesture learned from books—that’s what you say, Alice isn’t it?...And you, Meg?
Margaret: It is, for most of us, Father.
Alice, it’s a point of law! Accept it from me, Alice, that in silence is my safety under the law, but my silence must be absolute, it must extend to you.
Norfolk: But he makes no noise, Mr. Secretary; he’s silent, why not leave him silent?
Cromwell: Not being a man of letters, Your Grace, you perhaps don’t realize the extent of his reputation. This “silence” of his is bellowing up and down Europe!
Chapuys: Goodness can be a difficulty.
Chapuys: In the long run, of course, all good men everywhere are allies of Spain. No good man cannot be, and no man who is not can be good…
Attendant: Then he really is for us.
Chapuys: He is opposed to Cromwell, is he not?
Attendant: Oh, yes, Excellency.
Chapuys: If he’s opposed to Cromwell, he’s for us. There’s no third alternative?
Attendant: I suppose not, Excellency.
Chapuys: I have a personal letter for you.
More: From who?
Chapuys: My master, the King of Spain. You will take it?
More: I will not lay a finger on it.
Chapuys: It is in no way an affair of State. It expresses my master’s admiration for the stand which you and Bishop Fisher of Rochester have taken over the so-called divorce of Queen Catherine.
More: I have taken no stand!
Chapuys: But your views, Sir Thomas, are well known—
More: My views are much guessed at…
Chapuys: But, Sir Thomas, your views—
More: Are well known you say. It seems my loyalty to my King is less so!
Then it’s a poor argument to call it “neat,” Meg. When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then—he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.
Cromwell: …But, gentlemen of the jury, there are many kinds of silence. Consider first the silence of a man when he is dead. Let us say we go into the room where he is lying; and let us say it is in the dead of night—there’s nothing like darkness for sharpening the ear; and we listen. What do we hear? Silence. What does it betoken, this silence? Nothing. This is silence, pure and simple. But consider another case. Suppose I were to draw a dagger from my sleeve and make to kill the prisoner with it, and suppose their lordships there, instead of crying out for me to stop or crying out for help to stop me, maintained their silence. That would be betoken! It would betoken a willingness that I should do it, and under the law they would be guilty with me. So silence can, according to circumstances, speak. Consider, now, the circumstances of the prisoner’s silence. The oath was put to good and faithful subjects up and down the country and they had declared His Grace’s title to be just and good. And when it came to the prisoner he refused. He calls this silence. Yet is there a man in this court, is there a man in this country, who does not know Sir Thomas More’s opinion of the King’s title? Of course not! But how can that be? Because this silence betokened—nay, this silence was not silence at all but most eloquent denial.
More: Not so, Master Secretary, the maxim is “qui tacet consentire.” The maxim of the law is “Silence gives consent.” If, therefore, you wish to construe what my silence “Betokened,” you must construe that I consented, not that I denied.