Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Satire and Wit
Throughout the play, the characters with ties to the court participate in confused and misinterpreted exchanges of dialogue. These exchanges both satirize the court and portray the way corrupt morals lead to corrupt and ambiguous speech. In Cromwell’s exchange with the innkeeper, Cromwell humorously states that he can never be quite sure whether he’s duping or being duped when he interacts with such a “tactful” person. Cromwell has a similar exchange with Rich, in which he tries to assess just how trustworthy and how bribable Rich might be. Chapuys wrongly assumes that More’s straightforward answers are double talk and gives him a knowing wink that is completely out of place.
Historically, More was as witty as he was saintly. Much to Alice’s chagrin, More spends most of his time making light of the dangerous situations he encounters. In the play, More’s wit establishes his humanity. In Act One, scene seven, More insists that man is born to serve God “wittily.” By this, he means that man must cleverly escape death for as long as he legitimately and lawfully can, but the statement also emphasizes the importance of a sense of humor.
More is remarkable as much for his silence as for his statements. He maintains that if he does not speak his opinion concerning his disapproval of the king’s intention to divorce his wife, then, according to the Bible, his silence will connote consent, not dissent. More uses silence to his advantage, refusing to incriminate himself in a way that resembles invoking the fifth amendment in a United States court of law. More also protects his family from legal persecution by staying silent about his opinions in their presence.
More is silent in other ways as well. He disparages people, like Roper, who clamor at all times about ideals. More prefers to listen to the voice within, his conscience. He does not criticize Norfolk until he is sure that Norfolk needs to be criticized and enraged.
At the trial, Cromwell’s argument to the jury equates More’s silence with complicity in a crime. Cromwell’s claim is ironic, for the play shows how many other characters— primarily those played by the Common Man—remain silent when they could tell More about the plot against him.
Guilt receives much attention in the play, particularly in the characters of Rich, Norfolk, the jailer, Matthew, and even in More himself. Bolt shows how Rich constantly suffers under his own sense of guilt and yet cannot resist the temptation to improve his own prospects at the expense of others and his own conscience. When he is Matthew, the Common Man noticeably feels guilt on some level when More shows affection for him. As the jailer, the Common Man has a conscious understanding of his guilt and assuages his guilty conscience by convincing himself that it would be futile to set More free. Norfolk is obviously wracked with a sense of guilt when he tells More of Cromwell’s plot and his own association with it. More himself shows an inkling of guilt when he realizes that he might have to go to the chopping block with his family still unaware of why he acts the way he does.
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