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.