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.
The play opens with a monologue by the Common Man, a character meant to represent traits and attitudes common to us all. The Common Man carts around a basket of costumes and props that he uses in his various roles in the play.
The Common Man laments having to open a play about royalty and the noble class. He thinks himself unsuited to the task at hand, but he says he will present his own version. He puts on the costume of Matthew, Thomas More’s servant, and declares the sixteenth century “the Century of the Common Man.” Matthew treats himself to some of the wine he is putting out for his master and then introduces us to More as he enters.
More playfully asks Matthew how the wine tastes, knowing full well that Matthew sampled it. Richard Rich follows More into the room, and the two engage in an argument as to whether every man is capable of being bribed. More dismisses Rich’s belief that money, status, or women can bribe anyone, but he is intrigued when Rich implies that a man can be bought with suffering. As it turns out, Rich means that men wish to avoid suffering and are attracted to the possibility of escape. More immediately recognizes this idea as one of the theories of Machiavelli, and he asks who recommended that Rich read Machiavelli’s books.
Rich admits that Master Cromwell recommended he read Machiavelli. Cromwell, Rich reveals, offered Rich a job or a favor of some sort, but Rich bemoans his joblessness and his generally low social standing. More points out that the dean of St. Paul’s school has a comfortable teacher’s job available, but Rich has no interest in what he deems a dead-end opportunity. More warns that holding an administrative office is full of temptations, and he shows Rich an Italian silver cup that a litigant used to try to bribe him. More did not realize at the time that the cup was a bribe, and now that he does, he wishes to get rid of it. Rich says he will sell the cup to buy new, more respectable clothing.
The duke of Norfolk and More’s wife, Alice, enter, arguing over whether a falcon can stoop from 500 feet to kill a heron. Norfolk baits Alice into a bet of thirty shillings, although More refuses to let her ride off with Norfolk to see who wins. Meanwhile, More’s daughter, Margaret, has entered, and Rich begins to flatter Norfolk. More playfully tells everyone that Rich has been reading Machiavelli under Cromwell’s tutelage.
Norfolk announces that Cromwell has been promoted to the position of cardinal’s secretary, and everyone is surprised that such a lowborn and generally disliked man could get such a job. More points out that Rich’s relationship with Cromwell is now more valuable and that Rich will not need any help from More at finding a job. Rich pleads that he would rather work for More than for Cromwell, but a letter from the cardinal interrupts him. The cardinal wants to see More immediately.
As More prepares to leave, he sends his family off to bed with a prayer and arranges for Norfolk to take Rich home. More tells the duke that Rich needs a job, but he playfully adds that he does not necessarily “recommend” Rich. Again, More advises Rich to teach. Just before the scene ends, Rich runs back in to snatch up the silver cup that he left on the table. Matthew moves to stop him from taking it, but Rich explains that it was a gift. Matthew closes the scene by predicting that Rich will amount to nothing and that More is altogether too generous.
The Common Man initiates us to a story that might otherwise seem too far removed in time to connect with modern audiences. Throughout the play, the Common Man plays many roles, which emphasizes that he represents all humanity. He functions as a common denominator against which the other characters in the play can be judged. The trust More places in his sense of self resonates with the existentialist idea that human beings are defined above all by their inner selves, by their unique perspectives on existence. This brand of thought was popularized about a decade before Bolt’s play by thinkers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, but the characters in the play, which is set in the sixteenth century, find More’s beliefs foreign. The Common Man shows us how we all end up betraying ourselves by just doing our jobs—by serving in our professions as kings, cardinals, or even commoners—before being true to our inner selves.
The fact that Rich has read Machiavelli puts Rich’s actions in a historical and intellectual context. Nicolo Machiavelli (1469–1527), who was most famous for his political treatise The Prince, which advocated a kind of common-sense approach to government that put political expediency ahead of ethical and moral concerns. Machiavelli’s morals differ greatly from More’s. More reveres his private conscience above things like personal advancement, but Machiavelli advises the opposite. Rich’s reference to Machiavelli foreshadows the way he and his mentor, Thomas Cromwell, will spare no one to achieve success later in the play.
In addition to the Machiavelli reference, several other instances of foreshadowing pop up in this scene. More’s gift of the silver cup to Rich has dangerous implications for More later. Matthew’s remarks at the end of the scene that More has been too generous in giving Rich the cup also foreshadow More’s downfall. However, even though the gift marks the beginning of Rich’s corruption, More seems to understands the implications when he offers the cup. He tests Rich by offering him both the tainted cup, which represents corruption, and a teaching position, which represents a way of benefiting society. When Rich shuns the teaching job and accepts the cup, he reveals his immoral character.
While offering the teaching position to Rich, More provides a glimpse into his own nature. More operates in the play primarily as a servant—to his own conscience and to God. When he interacts with other people, however, More adopts the role of teacher. As he illustrates in his conversation with Rich, More teaches not by speaking his mind, but rather by testing others. Bolt shows More to be a morally ambiguous teacher who does not stop, and in fact almost encourages, Rich’s moral descent.
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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