The Common Man enters as the publican, or innkeeper, of a pub called the Loyal Subject. He says that he is not a deep thinker like More and that he should not be expected to act with deep principles.
Cromwell arrives at the Loyal Subject and asks the publican if his pub is a good place to launch a conspiracy. Cromwell wants to insure that there are not “too many little dark corners,” and the publican, bewildered, answers that there are only four corners in the room. Cromwell suspects that the man is being disingenuous, and asks the publican if he knows who Cromwell is. When the publican replies that he does not, Cromwell accuses him of being too tactful—of saying less than he knows. Cromwell beckons for Rich to come into the room, and he announces that he has secured the position of collector of revenues for York, which he will offer to Rich in exchange for information. Cromwell makes a joke at the king’s expense, and he gets Rich to admit that he can be bought. Rich’s admission is just what Cromwell wants to hear, because Cromwell is counting on Rich’s “common sense” (in other words, his corruptibility) to get the information he needs.
Cromwell explains that if Henry wants a divorce, he will get one, and it is Cromwell’s (and, he adds, Rich’s) job to make it as convenient as possible. The major problem is More, whose opinion is inviolable. But, Cromwell adds, the king will get a divorce whether or not More approves, and More will either have to bend to his will or get out of the way. Rich laments his loss of innocence, but he goes on to tell Cromwell about the silver cup More received as a bribe and passed on to Rich. He even divulges the price of the item and agrees to take Cromwell to the shop where he sold it.
Rich feels guilty for betraying More, but he admits that it was not as hard as he had expected. Cromwell promises that the next bribe will be even easier to take. Rich wonders what Cromwell plans to do with the information. Cromwell announces that men like More try to hold fast to their principles, but if they have any sense they get out of the way of a situation beyond their control. Otherwise, Cromwell predicts, men like More are only fit for heaven, not earth. Cromwell suspects, however, that More has plenty of “sense” and can be easily scared into changing his mind. When Rich retorts that More cannot be frightened, Cromwell demonstrates how far he is willing to go by holding Rich’s hand in a candle flame. Rich screams and accuses Cromwell of having enjoyed torturing him. Cromwell remains silent but looks proud and exultant.
All of Cromwell’s actions in this scene—questioning the publican, speaking against More, and bribing and torturing Rich—are acts of a stock character who represents evil. Cromwell mentions lightly that an innocent person like More is only fit for heaven, suggesting that heaven is where he intends to send More. When he burns Rich he unsubtly evokes the devil and the flames of hell. In a play more about the struggle between conscience and convenience than about morality and religion, it is odd to see a character so devoid of conscience as Cromwell. Overall, the scene seems to have the character of melodrama and morality tales rather than serious drama.
In a way, Bolt’s play is something of a cautionary tale. His characters possess obvious flaws that lead to More’s condemnation. The Common Man, for example, will continue to aid and abet More’s downfall, primarily because he plays numerous characters who are privy to the shady dealings performed behind More’s back and who do not say anything. He represents the morally risky notion of just going along with the flow of life without considering the consequences of one’s actions. Rich represents the dangers of succumbing to the temptations of wealth and status. If the Common Man and Rich show us step by step how a person can disregard his conscience for material gain, Cromwell represents evil in its purest form, done for its own sake.
Alternatively, one can argue that Cromwell represents the occupational hazards of working for a corrupt king. After all, Cromwell is also performing some of the same functions as Wolsey. He has become the guardian of the king’s conscience, and Henry, we have to assume, is always hovering over him. Later on in the play, Cromwell refers to King Henry’s “ravenous” conscience.
The comedic, satirical nature of this scene creates the sense that Cromwell and Rich are buffoons, set apart from the intelligent, moral figures such as More, Alice, and Margaret. The amusing exchange between Cromwell and the publican emphasizes Cromwell’s unsophisticated, narrow, and dim-witted outlook. As Cromwell tries to assess just how trustworthy the Publican might be, he becomes infuriated by the publican’s inability to understand him. Their muddled exchange lampoons the kind of court politics Cromwell embodies, because Cromwell speaks in innuendos and assumes the publican is doing the same, whereas the publican truly does not understand what Cromwell is asking him. As Rich fluctuates between pangs of guilt and immoral actions, he reveals his pathetic, whiny nature, which is established in the play’s first scene.
The Common Man is also a satirical character. The publican may appear clever, but his cleverness serves him only in an amoral way. The pub’s name, the Loyal Subject, ironically emphasizes the publican’s immorality. The publican remains loyal to Cromwell and Rich despite the fact that they are plotting villainous crimes in his presence. The fact that the publican points out his own faults without provocation reveals the extent to which he is meant to be a satirical character. He even goes so far as to say that a man in his position cannot be expected to behave like a “deep” man like Thomas More. His unsolicited excuse shows he is covering up his guilt in advance.