A Man for All Seasons
Act Two, scenes five–six
Summary: Scene five
Cromwell tells More that Rich will be recording their conversation. More compliments Rich’s fancy outfit. Cromwell admits that he greatly admires More, but as Rich starts to write that down, Cromwell stops him. More asks what the charges against him are, but Cromwell insists there are no charges, just questions. More asks Rich to record the fact that there are no charges.
Getting down to business, Cromwell announces that the king is not pleased with More and would reward More handsomely if he would only change his mind. More refuses. Cromwell changes the subject, bringing up the Holy Maid of Kent, a woman who was executed for sermonizing against the king. More admits that he knew her and sympathized with her, but when Cromwell accuses him of having withheld information about her treasonous talk, More assures him that their conversations were not political in nature. He even says he knows people who can testify to the fact that they were completely innocent.
Cromwell then accuses More of having written A Defense of the Seven Sacraments, a work attributed to King Henry himself. More admits that he answered a few of the king’s questions on canon law, but he denies that he wrote the book, which defends the pope’s authority in England. When Cromwell finally broaches the subject of Queen Anne, More says that the king told him not to inquire about that anymore. He calls Cromwell’s accusations empty threats. Cromwell then produces a letter from the king, who calls More a villain and a traitor. More is finally unsettled, and Cromwell excuses him. Cromwell tells Rich that the king has said More will die if he does not consent. Cromwell says that, as a man of conscience, the king cannot abide what he sees as More’s disapproval.
Summary: Scene six
Outside, More tries to hail a boat, but no one will stop for him. Norfolk enters and says he has been following More. He points out that it is dangerous even to know More, much less be seen with him, but he tells More about Cromwell’s smear campaign and his own role in it. More insists that Norfolk must forget their friendship and do his duty. But Norfolk protests that such a thing is impossible. Norfolk announces that the only solution is for More to change his mind, an idea that More finds impossible. Norfolk sarcastically protests that the only thing steadfast in this world is the fact that More will not give in to the king, and More replies that he thinks highly of friendship but must remain loyal above all to his own self.
More picks a fight with Norfolk that is playful but that has serious undertones. He accuses Norfolk of neglecting his own conscience by giving in to the amoral actions of the state, and he suggests that Norfolk is not fit for heaven. Norfolk finally gets angry, hits More, and departs. Just then, Margaret and Roper arrive to announce a new act in Parliament that calls for the administration of an oath regarding the king’s marriage. More asks about the wording of the oath, hoping he will be able to take it with a clear conscience. More describes for them his philosophy about man’s struggle for life. More says that God made angels to show him splendor, animals to show innocence, and plants to display simplicity. God made man, however, “to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind!” More goes on to say that man’s lot is to try to escape death for as long as possible, until it becomes evident that his time has come. When men finally die, More clarifies to Roper, men can rant and “clamor like champions,” showing God splendor. Until then, More proposes, they go home and look over the king’s new act.
Analysis: Scenes five–six
Rich’s fancy costumes highlight his slow but steady rise through the ranks of the royal administration. More’s comment about Rich’s attire recalls Rich’s grumbling in his first scene with More about his shabby clothes. We have witnessed Rich’s moral undoing, and throughout the rest of the play, we watch as he reaps the benefits of his evil ways. The contrast between the servile, pathetic Rich in Act One and Rich the haughty administrator in Act Two continues throughout subsequent scenes.
The meeting between More and Norfolk in Act Two, scene six, shows the complexity of More’s convictions with regard to friendship, conscience, and duty. Norfolk, More’s most faithful friend, has not refused to help prosecute More, so he is understandably flustered and confused as he wrestles with his own conscience. More’s reaction to Norfolk reveals that More never assumes that he truly knows someone else. He may like people and wish to help and teach them, but he can know only himself, and he does not judge others until they truly impinge upon his conscience.
More’s statement to Norfolk “[Y]ou must cease to know me . . . as a friend” can be interpreted in different ways. More advises Norfolk to cease their friendship so that Norfolk may obey his patriotic duty to the king without a guilty conscience. On the one hand, More might be sincere in speaking these words to Norfolk, since More’s advice that Norfolk should “cease to know” him accords to More’s strong sense of patriotic duty. Also, More follows this statement by telling Norfolk to think about the safety of Norfolk’s son, a comment that illustrates More’s love of family.
On the other hand, More’s comment that Norfolk should cease knowing him might be insincere. Later in the scene, More attacks Norfolk for being a spineless traitor to his own conscience while defending the irreligious, “rat-dog pedigree” that the king and the state have become. More’s decision to pick a fight could mean that he was never sincere in the first place. If so, More’s command that Norfolk “cease to know” him implies that Norfolk needs to consider the implications of obeying his king if doing so means living with a guilty conscience for betraying his friend. Moreover, More’s allusion to Norfolk’s son might suggest that by sacrificing his conscience for his irreligious king, Norfolk will set a poor example for his son.
In the middle of their conversation, More asks the confused and troubled Norfolk what he should do. When Norfolk can only ask More to submit to the king’s wishes and go against More’s own conscience, More finally becomes confrontational and harsh. More cannot tolerate the fact that Norfolk’s priorities are not clear. More feels Norfolk should follow his conscience, whether it tells him to be loyal to his king or to his friend. Absurdly, More even tries to show Norfolk that he could live a content, guilt-free life even if Norfolk plays a role in More’s persecution. More knows that Norfolk would be justified in his actions for several reasons, including his patriotic and familial duties. More goes even further to make it easy on Norfolk’s conscience by showing that if Norfolk simply parts company with him, he will be doing so as a friend.
There is a striking parallel between More’s behavior here and in the final scene of the play. In this scene, More decides to unleash his criticisms of Norfolk only after he has decided that the two should no longer be friends. In contrast, in the play’s final scene, he begins to speak his mind only after he has been convicted of a crime and sentenced to death. More’s philosophical lesson to Margaret and Roper at the close of scene six shows that men are allowed to “clamor” only once they know that their predestined end has arrived. Perhaps More feels similarly about his friendship with Norfolk and tries to make Norfolk fully aware of Norfolk’s ill-behavior only once More knows their friendship has come to an end.
The oath discussed at the end of scene six was administered by Henry’s government in 1536. All Church and lay government officials were required to swear their allegiance to Henry as the head of the Church of England, and to recognize and approve the Church’s break with Rome. Henry’s conduct in this matter reflected a shift from the time-honored medieval tradition in which rulers were the arbiters of lawmaking and civil conduct toward the more modern custom in which kings are also the ideological figureheads of their countries.
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