Sir Thomas More
The protagonist of the play. More’s historical refusal
to swear to Parliament’s Act of Supremacy is the play’s main subject,
but Bolt intentionally does not depict More as the saint or martyr
of legend. Bolt does not see More as a person who takes a stand
and sacrifices himself for a cause. Rather, Bolt’s More is a man
who gives up his life because he cannot
own commitment to his conscience, which dictates that he not turn
his back on what he believes is right or on God. To More, a man’s
his self, so he refuses to betray
his own conscience even on pain of death. Significantly, More makes
no move to speak out against King Henry’s divorce or to make any
public gesture that indicates his opinion on the matter. Only after
Cromwell condemns him does Thomas reveal his true opinions.
in-depth analysis of Sir Thomas More.
The Common Man
Common Man sporadically narrates the play, and he plays the roles
of most of the lower-class characters: More’s steward Matthew, the
boatman, the publican (innkeeper), the jailer, the jury foreman,
and the headsman (executioner). Bolt explains in his preface that
he intends the Common Man to personify attitudes and actions that
are common to everyone, but ultimately the Common Man shows that
Bolt implies base. In most instances,
the Common Man plays characters who just do their jobs without thinking
about the consequences of their actions or anyone’s interest other
than their own. Therefore, most of these characters end up betraying
their own personal moral values. Over the course of the play, the characters
the Common Man plays become more and more guilt-ridden. In the end,
the Common Man silences his guilty conscience by finding solace
in the fact that he is alive. He ends the play by implying that most
people do the same thing.
in-depth analysis of The Common Man.
low-level functionary whom More helped establish. Rich seeks to
gain employment, but More denies him a high-ranking position and
suggests that Rich become a teacher. Rich, however, goes to work
for Norfolk instead and eventually obtains from Cromwell a post
as the attorney general for Wales in exchange for perjuring himself
at More’s trial. Like the Common Man, Rich serves as a foil, or
character contrast, for Sir Thomas. In particular, Rich’s meteoric
rise to wealth and power is simultaneous with More’s fall from favor. Unlike
More, Rich conquers and destroys his conscience rather than obeying
it. The repetition of the word rich
in his name
signals Rich’s Machiavellian willingness to sacrifice his moral
standards for wealth and status.
in-depth analysis of Richard Rich.
Duke of Norfolk
More’s close friend. Norfolk is ultimately asked
by Cromwell, and even encouraged by More himself, to betray his
friendship with More. A large and rather simpleminded man, he is
often too stupid to know what’s going on, and he is innocent relative to Cromwell.
wife. A conflicted character, Alice spends most of the play questioning
why her husband refuses to give in to the king’s wishes. Her attitude
shifts from anger to confusion. Eventually, More shows her that
he cannot go to his death until he knows that she understands his decision.
When she visits her husband in prison, Alice finally shows him unconditional
love, saying that the fact that “God knows why” More must die is
good enough for her.
A crafty lawyer who is the primary agent plotting
against More. Whereas Rich and the Common Man are driven to their
immoral actions (conspiracy, execution, and so on) somewhat reluctantly
at times, Cromwell is motivated more by an evil nature. He facilitates
More’s downfall with only a minimum
The Lord Chancellor of England, who dies suddenly
following his inability to obtain a dispensation from the pope that
would annul King Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon and permit him
to marry Anne Boleyn. Though Bolt’s character descriptions claim
Wolsey is ambitious and intelligent, Wolsey’s character is not well
developed, and his primary function relates to the plot. Wolsey’s
sudden death hangs over the rest of the play as a warning to anyone
who would court the king’s disapproval.
Spanish ambassador to England. Chapuys is loyal to his country and
intent on assuring that the divorce between King Henry and Catherine,
which would dishonor Catherine, does not go through. When questioning
More, Chapuys displays his aptitude for hiding his political agenda
under the guise of religious fervor.
overzealous young man who is a staunch Lutheran at the beginning
of the play and later converts to Catholicism. Roper is also Margaret’s
boyfriend and, after he converts to Catholicism, her husband. Roper’s
high-minded ideals contrast with More’s level-headed morality, making
Roper yet another foil for More. Each of Roper’s scenes shows him
taking a public stance on a new issue, in opposition to More, who
prefers to keep his opinions to himself. In a conversation with
Roper, More argues that high-minded ideals, which he dubs “seagoing
principles” are inconsistent at best, and he advocates human law
as a better guide to morality.
well-educated and inquisitive daughter. Also called Meg, Margaret
is in love with and later marries William Roper. She shows that
she understands her father perhaps better than anyone else in the
play (except for More himself, of course). However, like her mother,
Margaret questions her father’s actions.
King Henry VIII
The king of England, who only briefly appears onstage
but is a constant presence in the speech and the thoughts of the
other characters. It is very important to Henry that others think
of him as a moral person, and he therefore cares greatly about what
More, a man of great moral repute, thinks of him. Henry, who believes that
he can force everyone, including the pope, into validating his desires,
wants to put his conscience at ease by forcing More to sanction
the king’s divorce from Catherine.