More is seated but Roper, dressed in black, and wearing a cross, is standing. More asks why he has to wear those clothes. Roper says he must, because he has to declare his allegiance to the Church. More says he is conspicuous and looks like a Spanish Catholic. Roper taunts him that his chain of office as Lord Chancellor is more of a disgrace than his clothes. More says he will take off his chain of office if the bishops agree to the Act of Supremacy—if they agree that Henry has complete charge of the Church. There is still some question because of the wording of the law, which adds, “so far as the law of God allows” (83). More is thankful that little loophole exists because he it means he can still be Chancellor in good conscience. Roper tries to get him to discuss how far he thinks the law of God allows Henry’s Act of Supremacy to go, but More says he is keeping his opinion to himself. More says he does not want to hear Roper’s opinion either because it is treason. Roper is now married to Margaret and has to think of his family. Margaret enters and encourages her husband to say what he thinks. More thinks they are both naive.
Ambassador Chapuys enters and accuses them all of wanting to be saints or martyrs. More does not like this joke. Chapuys pays More an awkward compliment, repeating the epithet, “The English Socrates,” as Erasmus calls More. More says he has no taste for hemlock. Chapuys acts horrified at More’s suggestion that he would be asked to die for the state as Socrates did. More asks Roper and Margaret to withdraw. Chapuys asks More if he will allow himself to be associated with Henry now, for after all, the Chancellor bears responsibility for what happens too. More is clearly upset by this and defends himself, saying that things might have been worse but for him. Chapuys says there “comes a point”(86) when a decision might have to be made and asks More if he will resign if the bishops submit to the King. More asks him what he would think of that and Chapuys says he would applaud, for it would be an important signal to the rest of the world. He says he has just returned from north England where things are different, and “There they are ready” (87). Chapuys uses the word, “resistance” and More is alarmed. They argue over what it means in the Bible to be militant for God’s sake. More says it is only metaphorical.
Just then Norfolk enters and Roper announces excitedly that it’s all over. Norfolk interrupts and says he will give the news. Chapuys seems to leave but waits to hear the news that the bishops gave in, and England is severed from Rome. More asks help to get the Chancellor’s chain off his neck, and Norfolk refuses. Roper, however, is eager to do it. More asks Alice, and she scolds him for abandoning his duty. Margaret helps her father. Norfolk says it looks like cowardice and does not understand.
More can no longer contain himself and says that this is war against the Church just because Henry wants him to say that the new Queen is his wife. Norfolk tries to trap More into giving his opinion, but he says he will only tell his opinion to the King. Norfolk warns More he will not only lose respect, but he will have to forfeit his property over a mere theory. More then tests Norfolk. He says if he tells Norfolk what he thinks, will he tell the King? Norfolk says no. More says, what if the King commands you to tell him. Norfolk says that he still will not tell. More asks what has become of Norfolk’s vow of obedience to the King then? Norfolk accepts More’s resignation on the King’s behalf, and tells him not to fear reprisals.
More stops Norfolk and tells him of Chapuys’s threat of rebellion in the north. He warns that they need to keep an eye there. Norfolk is glad to see he still has some patriotism.
When he leaves Alice says, “So there’s an end of you” (93). More says no, he will write and read and play with his grandchildren. Roper is proud of his “gesture” (94). More objects that it is not a gesture; he could not continue. It was a practical act. Roper disagrees, calling it a “moral” act (94). Alice says they are not going to leave him in peace in his house; she wants to know why he is doing this. More says he has done no wrong as long as he keeps his mouth shut, and that is why he will not tell them what he thinks, to protect them: “in silence is my safety under the law” (95).
Act Two, Scene Two: Commentary
The political tension has escalated since Henry has pursued his own course for England unopposed by Parliament, the Church, or any foreign power. The bishops are the last check to Henry’s taking over the Church. More has been juggling between Henry’s demands and his conscience for years, but as Chapuys says, there comes a point when one has to decide, and this is the scene in which that point of no return is reached, when More will have to cave in with the bishops or stand with his conscience. Roper tries to get More to discuss where the line is for him, but More will never disclose his principles or what his conscience tells him. He does this to protect his family. He has said he will only disclose that to King Henry, but in Bolt’s version of the story, there is no further discussion with the King. His resignation says it all. Norfolk promises More that Henry will not harm him because he has given good service. They were once friends. More thinks he will retire to write. Alice, however, is the realist. She knows they will not leave More alone because he is too influential all over Europe and could be a worse threat with his writings than as Chancellor.
Chapuys as usual visits More to see if he can pick up information about what More will do. The very fact of the presence of the Spanish ambassador when Norfolk delivers the news casts suspicion on Thomas More, as if he is conspiring with the enemy. This is even more obvious because Chapuys hints at rebellion in the north of England over the Act of Supremacy and in fact was an instigator in that unrest. Chapuys would like to see More on his side as a true Catholic, and he calls More a “brother in Christ” (85), hinting that they have the same religious principles. More, however, says that is a title they share with all of humanity, thus indicating he has a broader definition of religion than Chapuys does. Furthermore, he shows his loyalty to England by telling Norfolk about the rebellion. Norfolk says Cromwell already knows about it, but it does help to clear More’s name that he brings it up. In every scene, More falls outside the range of other people’s understanding, even his family’s.
When Norfolk challenges More that he will give up his reputation and property for a mere theory, More replies that “what matters to me is not whether it’s true or not but that I believe it to be true” (91). He is not claiming omniscience on the topic, but that it is a deep commitment in his life to which he must be true to be true to himself.
When Roper claims approvingly that More has made “a noble gesture” (94), More says it was no gesture. He would not put his family through that, for a gesture. He simply could not continue. He ridicules Roper’s idea of morality as a mere gesture, or something learned from books, as Alice accuses her husband of doing. If anyone goes by the book, it is Roper. His religion has to do with what doctrine he currently accepts. Alice accuses More of not trusting them because he won’t explain himself more clearly, but he insists he has to protect them in case they are questioned by authorities. This scene is the turning point of More’s fate, when he decides he must go against Henry and the state. He is still naïve, however, in believing that silence will save him