The Common Man sets up the stage as a courtroom, placing hats on poles to stand for jurymen. As he gets ready to leave, Cromwell stops him, insisting that he has to play the foreman of the jury. Cranmer and Norfolk preside over the trial. Norfolk offers More one last opportunity to take the oath, but More refuses. Cromwell reads the charges, which claim that More conspired to undermine Henry’s authority as the supreme head of the Church of England. More is accused of high treason. Shocked, More replies that he never denied Henry’s title, but Cromwell points out that he refused to take the oath. More counters that, legally, his silence does not signify denial. But Cromwell argues that silence can indicate disapproval. He discusses the silence of a roomful of people who have just witnessed a murder. In such a case, the witnesses are complicit in the murder for failing to speak or try to stop it. Cromwell asserts that everyone knows what More’s silence suggests, but More tells the jury that under the law silence does not imply consent. More and Cromwell argue about conscience and the soul. Cromwell says that what More calls minding his conscience and his soul is in fact a conceited obsession with his own self and his personal opinions.
Cromwell calls Rich to the stand, and Rich testifies that he heard More say that Parliament had no power to declare Henry the head of the Church in England. More laments Rich’s perjury. He swears on oath that he never denied that Henry was the head of the Church and reminds everyone how highly he regards an oath. More remembers that two other people were there at the time of his conversation with Rich, but Cromwell presents a deposition from the two men, saying that they were out of earshot when More denied the king’s title. As Rich is excused from the stand, More asks to see the chain of office he is wearing. When he recognizes it as the chain of the attorney general for Wales, More chides Rich for having sold his soul.
When Norfolk tells the jury to consider the evidence, Cromwell decides they should not need to retire to decide such an open-and-shut case. The jury finds More guilty, but before Norfolk can pronounce the sentence, More interrupts. Finally deciding to speak his mind, More denounces the Act of Supremacy, and he points out that both the Magna Carta and the Coronation Oath guarantee the Catholic Church’s authority. He announces that he remains a loyal subject of King Henry, and he tells the court that he is not on trial for denying the Act of Supremacy but rather because he refused to recognize the marriage.
Norfolk condemns More to death, and the scene quickly changes.
A crowd has gathered at the Tower of London to watch More’s beheading. The Common Man, this time cast as the executioner, dons a black mask. As More approaches the block, he refuses Norfolk’s offer of wine and Cranmer’s offer to perform the last rites. Margaret runs up, distraught, but More comforts her. Just then, the woman who tried to bribe More appears in the crowd, accusing him of giving her an incorrect judgment in her case. More dismisses the malicious woman and walks up to the block. He tells the executioner not to feel bad about having to kill him. He is sure, he tells Cranmer, that he will go to God. After a blackout indicating the execution, the Common Man removes his executioner’s mask and says to the audience, “It isn’t difficult to keep alive, friends—just don’t make trouble. . . . If we should bump into one another, recognize me.”
Ironically, Cromwell’s argument to the jury that silence can signify guilt ends up affirming the courtroom audience’s guilt for More’s murder. Cromwell suggests as an example that if he were to stab More and no one in the courtroom spoke out, everyone would be complicit in the murder. Even though they will not have to hold the ax to chop off More’s head, their role as silent witnesses to More’s condemnation makes them as guilty as the Cromwell.
Rich has completed his transformation into a Machiavellian prince—he is corrupt and successful. Rich sticks fast to his false story because in exchange for a high-ranking office, he has become nothing more than a mouthpiece for Cromwell. Rich has sacrificed his moral conscience, something that More would never do. The final scene shows that More’s attempt to teach Rich in the first scene has ultimately failed. Ironically, because More chose not to chastise Rich openly for his petty desires for status and wealth, Rich fell victim to temptation and then cut down More himself.
More’s style of teaching by way of tests and examples seems ineffective in Rich’s case, and the final scene elucidates More’s belief that people need to teach themselves. More defines himself by his conscience and his relationship with the law and with God, and he believes others ought to do the same. Since More advocates that people should not care what others say or think, he does not teach others outright, but rather tests them, hoping they will listen to their own consciences. More does not want to usurp the rightful place of God, so he rarely speaks his opinions.
As in his conversation with Norfolk earlier in the play, More becomes fervent about his opinions concerning Henry only after a ruling has already been made. More’s final outburst also exemplifies the philosophy More explained to Roper and Margaret in Act Two, scene six, when he said that we may “clamor” only once we know that God has chosen the correct time. Sentenced to death and assured that God has willed that he must die, More finally feels he can teach by speaking out.
Throughout the play, the Common Man becomes increasingly complicit in More’s death. Matthew betrays More in a roundabout way in the first act, and the innkeeper proves to be an accomplice as well, but the Common Man’s roles as jailer, juryman, and executioner implicate the Common Man in a less ambiguous manner. They also implicate the audience. Immediately after the execution, the Common Man says that he is still breathing and asks the audience members if they too are breathing. His question makes the audience aware of the fact that each person could have his or her head on the chopping block. If there is any question over how one can stay alive, the Common Man offers advice, then implies that his advice is not a secret but rather common knowledge understood by common men and women. This comment associates the audience directly with his title and his characters. Still, his advice is not moral but mean in nature, in line with the various roles he plays. The Common Man’s job is to do his job, to fit any number of social roles without rocking the boat.
The Common Man’s final command to his audience, “If we should bump into one another, recognize me,” recalls More’s statements about how people can only guess at what he is throughout the play and that very few people can actually truly know him. The Common Man’s command is rather absurd in one sense because he plays so many characters that it would be difficult to recognize him among us. But the Common Man’s warning implies that people will have no problem recognizing who has a common nature, for just as most of the characters in the play are base, most real people are base. Whereas More indicates that we cannot really know him, a man of conscience, the Common Man wishes us to understand that we can recognize and preferably avoid shallowness and “common” qualities when we see them.
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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