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A Man for All Seasons

Summary

Act One, scene one

Summary Act One, scene one

As More prepares to leave, he sends his family off to bed with a prayer and arranges for Norfolk to take Rich home. More tells the duke that Rich needs a job, but he playfully adds that he does not necessarily “recommend” Rich. Again, More advises Rich to teach. Just before the scene ends, Rich runs back in to snatch up the silver cup that he left on the table. Matthew moves to stop him from taking it, but Rich explains that it was a gift. Matthew closes the scene by predicting that Rich will amount to nothing and that More is altogether too generous.

Analysis

The Common Man initiates us to a story that might otherwise seem too far removed in time to connect with modern audiences. Throughout the play, the Common Man plays many roles, which emphasizes that he represents all humanity. He functions as a common denominator against which the other characters in the play can be judged. The trust More places in his sense of self resonates with the existentialist idea that human beings are defined above all by their inner selves, by their unique perspectives on existence. This brand of thought was popularized about a decade before Bolt’s play by thinkers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, but the characters in the play, which is set in the sixteenth century, find More’s beliefs foreign. The Common Man shows us how we all end up betraying ourselves by just doing our jobs—by serving in our professions as kings, cardinals, or even commoners—before being true to our inner selves.

The fact that Rich has read Machiavelli puts Rich’s actions in a historical and intellectual context. Nicolo Machiavelli (14691527), who was most famous for his political treatise The Prince, which advocated a kind of common-sense approach to government that put political expediency ahead of ethical and moral concerns. Machiavelli’s morals differ greatly from More’s. More reveres his private conscience above things like personal advancement, but Machiavelli advises the opposite. Rich’s reference to Machiavelli foreshadows the way he and his mentor, Thomas Cromwell, will spare no one to achieve success later in the play.

In addition to the Machiavelli reference, several other instances of foreshadowing pop up in this scene. More’s gift of the silver cup to Rich has dangerous implications for More later. Matthew’s remarks at the end of the scene that More has been too generous in giving Rich the cup also foreshadow More’s downfall. However, even though the gift marks the beginning of Rich’s corruption, More seems to understands the implications when he offers the cup. He tests Rich by offering him both the tainted cup, which represents corruption, and a teaching position, which represents a way of benefiting society. When Rich shuns the teaching job and accepts the cup, he reveals his immoral character.

While offering the teaching position to Rich, More provides a glimpse into his own nature. More operates in the play primarily as a servant—to his own conscience and to God. When he interacts with other people, however, More adopts the role of teacher. As he illustrates in his conversation with Rich, More teaches not by speaking his mind, but rather by testing others. Bolt shows More to be a morally ambiguous teacher who does not stop, and in fact almost encourages, Rich’s moral descent.