“The Sixteenth Century is the Century of the Common Man. Like all the other centuries. And that’s my proposition.” Act One, pp. 3, 4.
This line spoken by the character The Common Man, who is a narrator and plays different roles in the play, can be taken more than one way. Historically, it could mean that in the Sixteenth Century, certain middle class men began to rise in station, like Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. From the character’s point of view, it means that he thinks he has the most pragmatic outlook on life. The Common Man is smug because he is a survivor among the important people around him who are caught up in political intrigue. He goes on, performing the small tasks while the great men rise and fall from power. Bolt may also be thinking of “Common” as coarse. A Sir Thomas More is a rare man in any age, and he is never appreciated or understood by the men of common soul.
“A man should go where he won’t be tempted.” Act One, p. 7.
This is Sir Thomas More’s advice to Richard Rich who comes looking for a job. Rich wants position and power, but More sees, even from the beginning that Rich is weak. He tries to explain that public life is full of bribery and temptation. He should go back to Cambridge and become a teacher.
“My master Thomas More would give anything to anyone . . . .some day someone’s going to ask him for something that he wants to keep.” Act One, p. 17
The Common Man as More’s butler comments on his generosity, predicting that there will come a time when he won’t be able to say yes to everything. The something he will want to keep to himself is his opinion on the King’s second marriage and the Act of Supremacy.
“You don’t know how to flatter.” Act One, p. 59.
More’s wife Alice is begging him to keep up a good friendship with the King. He says he is trying, but Alice thinks he does not know how to act like a courtier.
“I have not disobeyed my sovereign. I truly believe no man in England is safer than myself.” Act One, p. 68.
More has just said no to discussing the King’s divorce with him because he was promised he could stay out of it. Now the King is begging for a public statement, but when More says he cannot, the King says he respects his conscience. More thinks he has escaped the pressure.
“What’s in me for him to miss?” Act Two, p. 97
More has resigned the office of Chancellor because he does not agree to go with the bishops in supporting the King. His property and income are confiscated; he has to let the servants go. He asks his butler Matthew (The Common Man) if he will stay for smaller wages. He refuses, so More says that he will miss him. Matthew turns to the audience and asks why More would miss someone like him. He can see through him and knows he cheats. Matthew cynically concludes that it was just a line to manipulate him.
“We feel that since you are known to have been a friend of More’s, your participation will show that there is nothing in the nature of a ‘persecution,’ but only the strict processes of law.” Act Two, p. 103.
Cromwell informs Norfolk that the King wants him to be involved in bringing down Sir Thomas More. Norfolk is angry and bitter, because the More family is very dear to him. He is being blackmailed to bring pressure on More to yield, or hunt him down for treason.
“To frighten a man there must be something in the cupboard, must there not?” Act Two, p. 118
More is not intimidated by Cromwell’s methods of interrogation, and says he has but an empty cupboard. Cromwell says there is something in the cupboard and produces a writ of the King’s, denouncing More as a traitor. This is the moment More knows it is all over. He can no longer hide in silence. He must give in or lose his head.
“In matters of conscience, the loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing.” Act Two, p. 153.
More at his trial explains he is not treasonous to the King or England by being loyal to his own conscience. Every citizen should be.
“You have long known the secrets of my heart.” Act Two, p. 161.
More’s last words of comfort to his daughter, Margaret, as he ascends the scaffold compliment her as the one who knows him best. He has taught her all his knowledge. She understands what he lives and dies by.
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