My Master Thomas More would give anything to anyone. Some say that’s good and some say that’s bad, but I say he can’t help it—and that’s bad . . . because some day someone’s going to ask him for something that he wants to keep; and he’ll be out of practice.
(Act One, scene one)
In this excerpt from a monologue at the end of the play’s first scene, More’s servant, Matthew, predicts the conflict More will face in the play. Yet Matthew’s statement that More is out of practice is wrong, since More seems to be the only character with enough practice to know that there are certain things that he cannot sacrifice. In fact, the central conflict in the play stems from More’s refusal to give up his sense of self, which is rooted in his faith in the Catholic Church and in God. After relinquishing his career, his family, his friendship with Norfolk, and even his freedom, More sees it as utterly impossible to relinquish his beliefs. Though characters like Roper and Chapuys see More’s actions as noble but impractical gestures, More thinks of his behavior as the most practical and realistic option. For More, to double cross his conscience would be to disown his soul, his self.
It is important that Matthew’s prediction seems insightful but proves incorrect at the end of the play. In the beginning of the play, the characters the Common Man plays seem to be insightful and clever members of the lower class, who astutely critique and satirize the nobility. Yet at the play’s close, even the Common Man has unraveled and behaves in a reprehensible way, causing us to rethink the opinions we have had of him all along.
Well . . . I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties . . . they lead their country by a short route to chaos.
(Act One, scene two)
In this pronouncement from Act One, scene two, More tears apart Wolsey’s common-sense approach to politics. Wolsey believes a person should take the most convenient and advantageous option in political matters, but More believes a statesman’s duty is to weigh his “own private conscience” because doing so will ultimately lead to the common good.
(Quietly) I neither could nor would rule my King.
(Pleasantly) But there’s a little . . . little, area . . . where I must rule myself. It’s very little—less to him than a tennis court.
(Act One, scene seven)
More speaks these words to his wife, Alice, following King Henry’s visit to their home. Alice urges More either to rule or be ruled, but More argues that he will allow himself to be ruled, except in matters pertaining to his conscience. We often find More desperately searching for a loophole in some act or oath, and at such times we may wonder whether this moral man is trying to skirt the issue. This statement of More’s reveals that he is not really an idealist. Unlike Roper, More does not do things just because he believes in them but because, as he says, his conscience believes in them. He does not try to prove a point or to be a hero, but there are certain points he feels he cannot concede without sacrificing his own self.
And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (He leaves him) This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?
(Act One, scene seven)
After Roper accuses More of respecting man’s law over God’s, More delivers this defense of his actions. Though More believes in the afterlife, he also recognizes that he has no right and no means to make judgments that are better left to God. More respects man’s law as the best available means of protecting against evil, even if it lets people like Rich off the hook from time to time. Bolt explains in his preface that he uses seafaring and water metaphors to signify the uncertainty of the great beyond, the moral universe that Roper aims to navigate. In this passage, More’s vision of a stable, lawful earthly existence is signified by images of the forest, and a lawless earth is signified by images of a barren wasteland.
All right, so he’s down on his luck! I’m sorry. I don’t mind saying that: I’m sorry! Bad luck! If I’d any good luck to spare he could have some. I wish we could all have good luck, all the time! I wish we had wings! I wish rainwater was beer! But it isn’t! . . . And what with not having wings but walking-on two flat feet; and good luck and bad luck being just exactly even stevens; and rain being water—don’t you complicate the job by putting things in me for me to miss!
(Act Two, scene two)
When More lets Matthew go, he tells him he’ll be missed, but Matthew is skeptical. Matthew sees no reason for More to miss him and resents feeling he has to worry about personal relations and responsibilities, particularly those regarding his boss. Matthew has spent the entire play acting for his own financial gain, accepting bribes for information on More and others. More’s suggestion that they share a bond of friendship makes Matthew feel guilty for how he behaved. Matthew disregarded his conscience, the very thing that More refuses to do.
Throughout the rest of the play, the Common Man (who plays Matthew and many other characters) becomes more directly involved in More’s undoing—as jailer, juryman, and ultimately, executioner. Bolt suggests here that the Common Man could be any of us just doing our jobs. In a world that celebrates history as a series of trends, we should all accept personal responsibility and pay attention to our consciences, even if we feel there’s nothing we can do.
The jailer, played by the Common Man, invokes this excuse, which he calls an “old adage,” to justify not living according to his conscience. His statement claims that life, no matter how immoral, is always better than death. The jailer’s statement is actually a misquoted version of the biblical saying, “Better a live dog than a dead lion” (Ecclesiastes 9:4). The Common Man’s deliberate paraphrasing of the Bible underscores his base nature and the base nature of the other men who act like some of his characters, like Cromwell. Obviously, the play argues an opposite message, since its hero, More, gives up his physical existence for the good of his soul.
In general, More does feel that life is better than death. Earlier in Act Two, More implies that it is important for Norfolk to keep alive and not die by associating himself with More, telling Norfolk to stay away and reminding him that he has a son. Before More is imprisoned, he tells Margaret and Roper that he believes men should fight death until it becomes apparent that death is the only course left to take. He says that man’s goal must be to escape death until the predestined moment comes. More lives his life by fighting death however he can until he believes God has deemed it time for him to depart, at which point he welcomes death with open arms.
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