My Master Thomas More would give anything to anyone. Some say that’s good and some say that’s bad, but I say he can’t help it—and that’s bad . . . because some day someone’s going to ask him for something that he wants to keep; and he’ll be out of practice.
The play opens with a monologue by the Common Man, a character meant to represent traits and attitudes common to us all. The Common Man carts around a basket of costumes and props that he uses in his various roles in the play.
The Common Man laments having to open a play about royalty and the noble class. He thinks himself unsuited to the task at hand, but he says he will present his own version. He puts on the costume of Matthew, Thomas More’s servant, and declares the sixteenth century “the Century of the Common Man.” Matthew treats himself to some of the wine he is putting out for his master and then introduces us to More as he enters.
More playfully asks Matthew how the wine tastes, knowing full well that Matthew sampled it. Richard Rich follows More into the room, and the two engage in an argument as to whether every man is capable of being bribed. More dismisses Rich’s belief that money, status, or women can bribe anyone, but he is intrigued when Rich implies that a man can be bought with suffering. As it turns out, Rich means that men wish to avoid suffering and are attracted to the possibility of escape. More immediately recognizes this idea as one of the theories of Machiavelli, and he asks who recommended that Rich read Machiavelli’s books.
Rich admits that Master Cromwell recommended he read Machiavelli. Cromwell, Rich reveals, offered Rich a job or a favor of some sort, but Rich bemoans his joblessness and his generally low social standing. More points out that the dean of St. Paul’s school has a comfortable teacher’s job available, but Rich has no interest in what he deems a dead-end opportunity. More warns that holding an administrative office is full of temptations, and he shows Rich an Italian silver cup that a litigant used to try to bribe him. More did not realize at the time that the cup was a bribe, and now that he does, he wishes to get rid of it. Rich says he will sell the cup to buy new, more respectable clothing.
The duke of Norfolk and More’s wife, Alice, enter, arguing over whether a falcon can stoop from 500 feet to kill a heron. Norfolk baits Alice into a bet of thirty shillings, although More refuses to let her ride off with Norfolk to see who wins. Meanwhile, More’s daughter, Margaret, has entered, and Rich begins to flatter Norfolk. More playfully tells everyone that Rich has been reading Machiavelli under Cromwell’s tutelage.
Norfolk announces that Cromwell has been promoted to the position of cardinal’s secretary, and everyone is surprised that such a lowborn and generally disliked man could get such a job. More points out that Rich’s relationship with Cromwell is now more valuable and that Rich will not need any help from More at finding a job. Rich pleads that he would rather work for More than for Cromwell, but a letter from the cardinal interrupts him. The cardinal wants to see More immediately.