The Common Man enters with his basket. He puts on the costume of a jailer. He explains because of the pay scale, they can only get someone like him to take the job. But it’s a job like any other. Cromwell, Rich, Norfolk, and Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, enter the Tower of London while the Common Man finishes his monologue, explaining that everyone is acting to save his own skin, but Cromwell was found guilty of treason and executed in 1540; Norfolk should have been executed on Jan. 27, 1547, but the King died of syphilis the night before; Cranmer was burned alive in 1556, but Richard Rich became Lord Chancellor and died in his bed. The jailer wakes up More at one o’clock in the morning. More limps across his cell, clearly an aged man, to see the Secretary, Duke, and Archbishop. They show More a document, the Act of Succession, and ask if he will swear to it. He says no. They ask if he recognizes the offspring of Queen Anne as heirs to his majesty. He says of course. Then why, they ask, will he not swear to the Act of Succession? Cromwell answers for him: there is more than that in the Act. They decide to find out what he objects to in the Act. They try to get his reasons for not taking the oath, but he will not take the oath and will not say why. They conclude his reasons are treasonable. He replies they only may be treasonable, and the law requires fact.
More’s strategy appears as he explains to them the limit of the law. For refusing to swear, all his goods are forfeit, and he must spend his life in prison. They cannot lawfully harm him further. Norfolk tells him to look at the names on the list. He himself doesn’t know if the marriage was lawful, but can’t Thomas sign out of fellowship with the others? More claims that he only cares when he stands before God, that he followed his conscience. Cranmer asks if the men who signed are damned? More says he doesn’t have a window on someone else’s conscience. For himself, he has no doubt about why he is refusing the oath, which he will tell only to the King.
Cromwell threatens there are harsher punishments. They retire and when More requests more books, they take away the ones he has. He asks to see his family, which is refused. When More is gone, Cromwell asks the jailer if he ever heard More speak of the King’s Supremacy, and the jailer says no. Before leaving, Cromwell makes the jailer swear an oath that he will report More’s opinions if he utters them. The jailer swears and then Cromwell slips him fifty guineas. They leave.
The jailer on stage alone says that fifty guineas is serious money, and if it’s worth that, it will be worth his neck. He wants no part of it.
Act Two, Scene Ten: Commentary
Again, More insists he is not standing up for what all men should do or believe but what he himself can live with. He battles step by step against the state, using the law and his conscience as his shield. Each time, he thinks there is nothing more they can legally do to him. The jailer’s future vision of the fate of the men persecuting More is proof that there is no safety in a lawless land. Not only is More marching to his end, but also all the ministers who are condemning him. Henry will do whatever he wants. This says something about the nature of the times and politics in general. Political expediency turns out to be a game of chance. Norfolk was condemned in the end, even though he tried to play by the rules as they kept changing. Even Cromwell loses. More tries to get them to see that one cannot live one’s own life by the King’s whim. Can Henry command the earth to be flat? There is a law beyond the King: the law of the land and God’s law, and the law of the conscience.
More’s conviction of his own right behavior has been tested. From his limp, it is apparent he is in poor health, and he mentions that he has been in the cell for a year. He has aged, but he is relaxed while the ministers are tense. They have not killed his spirit. He is still able to make jokes. The mockery of the whole proceeding is illustrated in the oath the jailer has to swear. It is obvious that oath taking has no meaning to him, and in this, he is like the nobles who take whatever oath is required . He cheerfully swears whatever is wanted. When they offer a bribe, however, he is smart enough to know it could be a trap and vows to stay clear. The Common Man, like Richard Rich, is a survivor. He knows nothing of noble thoughts. He does his job, as he says, and remains practical.