A single spotlight reveals a red robe and the cardinal’s hat lying on the floor. The Common Man enters to describe Cardinal Wolsey’s death, which was officially attributed to pulmonary pneumonia but, for all intents and purposes, was caused by the king’s displeasure with Wolsey’s handling of the divorce. Wolsey died on his way to jail for the crime of high treason. Thomas More, the Common Man reports, was appointed Wolsey’s successor. The Common Man jokes that More is considered by some to be a saint and that if one acknowledges his stubborn disregard of ordinary reality, then he probably was one.
Cromwell and Rich run into each other at Hampton Court. Belittling Rich’s new job—Rich is now Norfolk’s secretary and librarian—Cromwell mentions that he himself was promoted into the king’s service. He asks Rich why he does not have a better job since the new Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, is his old friend. When Rich sheepishly replies that he and More are not really friends, Cromwell takes the opportunity to dangle a job offer before him, presumably in exchange for some service.
Suddenly suspicious, Rich asks Cromwell what exactly he does for the king, and just then Signor Chapuys enters and asks the same question. Cromwell skirts the issue but finally explains that he does whatever the king “wants done.” As an example, Cromwell mentions that he recently arranged Henry’s trip down the Thames on the maiden voyage of a new battleship, the Great Harry. After Chapuys reminds Cromwell that the ship has fewer guns than Cromwell has claimed, Cromwell tells Chapuys that the king plans to sail the ship to More’s house to discuss the king’s divorce. Shocked, Signor Chapuys complains that More has already expressed his opinion on the matter. Cromwell insists that the king hopes to make More change his mind.
More’s steward, Matthew (played by the Common Man), appears, and all three men are eager to talk to him. Cromwell pushes Chapuys out of view and questions Matthew about More’s opinions concerning the divorce, holding up a coin for Matthew to see. Matthew tells him that More is so anxious that he turns white as a sheet whenever the subject is mentioned. Cromwell pays Matthew for his information and beckons Rich to come with him as he leaves. Rich protests that he knows nothing, and heads off in the other direction.
Meanwhile, Chapuys has returned. From Matthew, he learns that More is a religiously observant. Chapuys also pays off Matthew and leaves. Finally, Rich returns and asks Matthew what he told Chapuys. Matthew tells him, and Rich points out that the information is common knowledge. Matthew explains that he told Chapuys what he wanted to hear. Alone, Matthew addresses the audience, reveling in the fact that he tricked three men into paying him off for little bits of common knowledge. He imagines that the men will make a big deal and a big secret out of their discoveries so that they do not feel duped.
Wolsey’s death sets into motion the clash between More and the king that has been building for the play’s first four scenes. The Common Man’s announcement in Act One, scene five, that Wolsey’s death was effectively the result of Henry’s displeasure foreshadows the dangers of More’s appointment as Wolsey’s replacement. We realize that More must now take on the prickly situation of securing Henry’s divorce or else find a way to avoid the same dire consequence that Wolsey faced. The dramatic use of a spotlight to focus attention on Wolsey’s garments, which are symbolic of More’s new position, underlines the position’s tenuousness. The Common Man’s joke about the incompatibility of sainthood and high office provides a lighthearted moment that acknowledges the price More pays for his unwillingness to sacrifice his own conscience for the sake of his life or the demands of others.
The entrances, exits, double talk, bribery, and deceit in scene six showcase the political environment that More will have to contend with as Lord Chancellor. However, the Common Man’s bribing of Chapuys, Cromwell, and Rich poses no actual threat to More but satirizes those who do not know how to operate except through lies and deception. Matthew takes advantage of all three men by offering them nothing but the most well known information about More. These exchanges link with a later scene in the play when Cromwell suspects a lowly innkeeper, also played by the Common Man, of being even craftier than himself when the innkeeper plays dumb about Cromwell’s conspiracy.
The Common Man is both common, meaning universal, and common, meaning lowly. By playing lower-class characters, he serves as a magnet for the double-dealings of kings and cardinals, and in doing so he questions the assumptions frequently made about the lower class’s lack of morality. A sixteenth-century butler, a lower class individual, was assumed to have no moral scruples. Later, More himself takes it for granted that Matthew has betrayed him, showing that even More buys into the stereotypes of his time. Yet Matthew turns bribe-taking into a means of attack. He engages with others in a manner that is dishonest on the surface, but he does so to cheat his bribers with information that is not technically secret.
At the same time, the Common Man does not tell More about the people who are plotting against him. Throughout the play, he dupes More’s adversaries, but he does so only for the audience’s eyes. As the play progresses, the Common Man (or rather, the characters he plays) has a harder time reconciling his acts with More’s kind treatment of him. Although the Common Man plays many roles, all his characters develop in a unified fashion, as though they were one person.
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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