Even though Bolt announces in his preface that he tried to avoid the perils of having his characters represent something, symbolism turns out to be a major force driving the action of the play, as most characters are motivated by More’s reputation as a moral man, not by More’s individual characteristics. Perhaps, in fact, More stands for the perils of being perceived as a saint or a moral man. Throughout the play, characters—including Chapuys, Roper, Cromwell, and the king—view More as a representative of a concept rather than as a person. His consent is important to the king and to Norfolk because it would make them feel and appear moral. Chapuys too sees More as an upstanding moral and religious man, and Chapuys takes comfort in the fact that the virtues More represents contradict the king’s actions.
In his preface to the play, Bolt calls More “a hero of selfhood.” More refuses to sacrifice his self, which he defines by his moral conscience, even as he sacrifices his life.
Though More was much later sainted for his refusal to swear an oath to King Henry’s supremacy to the pope, Bolt does not depict More as someone who ascribes to religious dogma of any sort. In fact, Bolt disparages such people, who are represented by Will Roper. As a hero, More is more existential than religious, because he looks inwardly for his motivations and does not rely on any external ideals to guide his speech and actions. In fact, More’s morals are continually shifting, and he surprises Chapuys and other characters with his sharp wit and unexpected pragmatism. If an ideal agrees with his conscience, More will do his best to live up to it; if not, he will discard it.
More’s reverence for being practical, however, is rooted in his love for the law. According to Bolt, the letter of the law held an important place in More’s conscience, albeit a notch below that held by the Church of Christ and the kingdom of heaven. Bolt explains that he uses More’s reverence for heaven as a metaphor for humanity’s reverence for the “terrifying cosmos,” which is either void of any morality or occupied by warring forces of good (God) and evil (the devil). Unable to know the nature of the cosmos, Bolt contends, More put his faith in society’s system of judgment—the law. The great beyond, symbolized in the play by the sea and water, remains unknown to humankind. Earthly society and laws, symbolized by dry land, offer the only shelter from the uncertainties of the universe.
In his preface, Bolt explains that he intended “common” to be understood to mean “universal,” but many people ascribe the pejorative connotations of vulgar and low class to the word as well. Bolt laments the fact that upper class and even lower-status people, who resented such an image, failed or refused to view the Common Man as a representative of themselves. However, regardless of how Bolt viewed his character, the Common Man embodies both universality and baseness. In fact, the Common Man shows that the “common” human being is base and immoral.
Although the Common Man acts in many different roles in order to establish his universal nature, he actually develops into a coherent character as the play progresses. Initially, he portrays Matthew and the boatman, who are forgotten figures of the lower class who judge the noble characters in the play and make them look like fools. Yet as the play progresses, even the characters played by the Common Man begin to lose their moral footing. Matthew, for example, tries to suppress his guilty conscience for having sold out More after More expresses his affection for Matthew.
Eventually, the Common Man’s characters become more aware of the excuses they make for their immoral acts. When the jailer deliberates about whether to set More free, he speaks directly to the audience about the futility of trying to do the right thing. By the end of the play, the Common Man affirms the notion that to be alive—regardless of the nature of one’s actions—is the only thing that counts. As a whole, the Common Man’s role in the play shows his complicity in More’s persecution. Because the Common Man represents humanity in general, he is intended to draw us all into the play’s central moral dilemma.
Again, even though Bolt claims that he did not want his characters to stand for anything in particular, Rich symbolizes the tendency to succumb to the temptation of wealth and status. Rich is a Machiavellian hero, someone who seeks to advance himself politically and socially, whatever the cost. Despite his selfishness, Rich reveals his humanity when he wrestles with his own conscience while he sells out his friend More. In Rich’s awareness of his moral shortcomings, he is similar to the Common Man.
Like Cromwell, Rich serves as a foil to More, highlighting More’s superior character. Rich also illuminates More’s character in less obvious ways. For instance, in the opening scene, More tells Rich that he should be a teacher. More shows great interest in Rich’s moral fiber and wishes for him to quell his petty, self-interested urge to gain wealth and status. More’s conversation with Rich reveals More’s own interest in teaching as not just a profession but as something he himself practices throughout the play. In his interaction with Rich in the first scene, More teaches by testing Rich by offering him the goblet, letting Rich know that the goblet was a bribe and is therefore tainted. More understands Rich’s faults from the very opening of the play, but he tries to nurture Rich anyway. It is therefore tragic that Rich eventually perjures himself to condemn More to death.
How does Thomas More differ from Thomas Cromwell on religion and politics?
Why do the characters in the reading react as they do to Richard Rich reading Machiavelli and knowing Cromwell?
How does More differ from Wolsey in his opinion on the King’s divorce?
How does Thomas More feel towards Henry VIII?
How does Henry VIII try to persuade More to change his mind?
How does More resemble Henry VIII?
How do Cromwell’s words and actions with Richard Rich demonstrate his political and moral Machiavellianism?... Read more→
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