The boatman changes into Sir Thomas More’s steward as they arrive home. He helps More put on his slippers. Margaret is still up because Master Roper is visiting her. More is surprised. Margaret announces that Will Roper wants to marry her. More objects. Roper defends his family line, but More does not care about his social standing. He objects that Will is a “heretic” (30). Roper argues that it is the Catholic Church that is the heretic, as proved by Martin Luther. More says that Luther has been excommunicated by the Church. Roper accuses the Church of being in business with the sale of indulgences and divorce. Roper says that the whole country is gossiping about whether the Pope will give Henry a divorce. He calls the Pope an Antichrist. Margaret reprimands him for speaking like that to her father, a devout Catholic. More accuses Roper of changing religions too easily. Two years ago he was a good Catholic. More sends Roper home on Alice’s horse. Margaret tells him he may come again. When he leaves, Margaret confronts her father about Will’s proposal. More says he is against the marriage so long as Will is a heretic, though he is a nice boy.
Margaret asks her father if he talked to Wolsey about the divorce. He changes the subject to Will again. Margaret asks him again, and again he changes the subject to the Ropers. He comments that old Roper was just as stubborn as Will. They like to go in the opposite direction. Margaret sticks to the divorce, speculating that the Pope will give in. More tells her to stop talking treason and gossip. Alice enters and says she just saw Roper leave on her horse. More says that he will bring it back; Roper was visiting Margaret. Alice is outraged and wants to know why the father does not beat the daughter for such behavior. More says he can’t beat Margaret because she is educated.
Alice sends Margaret to get hot water for her father and then tries to get More to talk about what Wolsey wanted. He says Wolsey wanted him to read a dispatch, but then refuses to talk more about it. Alice mentions that Norfolk was talking of Thomas More as the next Chancellor. He comments that Wolsey is Chancellor, and another is not needed. Margaret brings her father some hot water, and More refuses to drink it. Alice jokes that great men get colds, just like commoners. More jokes back that she is speaking like a Leveler, and should beware of the Tower.
The three of them continue talking about the possibility of More becoming Chancellor, but he says as long as Wolsey lives, there won’t be any other Chancellor. If Wolsey falls, it will swamp the people around him, like More. They go to bed.
Act One, Scene Four: Commentary
The danger of More’s position is felt just as much by what is left unsaid as said. The fact that he will not discuss the King’s divorce with his family means he is protecting both them and himself by not gossiping. More is a lawyer, and he conveys his competence by his careful and cautious handling of events. It is obvious he understands all the nuances of every political move, as when he mentions what would happen if Wolsey falls. Although Wolsey is an enemy, he understands that if Wolsey cannot satisfy the King, it will go ill for all of them.
It is significant that Bolt has structured the play with King Henry, the mover of events, in only one scene in the whole play, yet he is the constant threat in the background. Sir Thomas More was a friend of Henry’s in earlier days. One senses the split between them through all this indirection. Henry’s will is carried out through his officials. His absolute power is demonstrated through his never having to do anything to More directly. If Wolsey falls, a man who is trying to do what the King wants, how much worse will it be for More, a man of conscience?
The interchange between Roper and More is a dialogue about the state of religion in sixteenth-century Europe. It was the time of the Reformation, after Martin Luther had posted his objections to the Catholic Church on the door of Wittenburg Castle Church in 1517. Luther wanted reform of the superficial and corrupt, outward show of religion in order to put the emphasis on the private relationship of the worshipper to God. Roper puts the King’s divorce in the same category as the indulgences or pardons for sin the Church offered in exchange for a donation to the Church, implying that the Catholic Church is corrupt and can be bought off. These religious matters had political implications as Protestantism spread its influence through Europe, and Rome lost its absolute power over monarchs. Wolsey too was hinting at reform of the Church, though Henry’s reform turns out to be for his own convenience, to secure the divorce he wants. Sir Thomas More is loyal to the Catholic Church and will eventually die for refusing to recognize the English Church and the King as its head (The Act of Supremacy, 1534). It was a time when people were passionate about their religion, as More mentions. Will, however, was passionate for the Catholic Church one minute and then for Luther the next. In order to marry Margaret More, Roper will have to change back to Catholic again. He is thus a foil to More who is constant in his religion and ethics.