A Man for All Seasons

by: Robert Bolt

Act Two, scenes nine–ten

Rich has completed his transformation into a Machiavellian prince—he is corrupt and successful. Rich sticks fast to his false story because in exchange for a high-ranking office, he has become nothing more than a mouthpiece for Cromwell. Rich has sacrificed his moral conscience, something that More would never do. The final scene shows that More’s attempt to teach Rich in the first scene has ultimately failed. Ironically, because More chose not to chastise Rich openly for his petty desires for status and wealth, Rich fell victim to temptation and then cut down More himself.

More’s style of teaching by way of tests and examples seems ineffective in Rich’s case, and the final scene elucidates More’s belief that people need to teach themselves. More defines himself by his conscience and his relationship with the law and with God, and he believes others ought to do the same. Since More advocates that people should not care what others say or think, he does not teach others outright, but rather tests them, hoping they will listen to their own consciences. More does not want to usurp the rightful place of God, so he rarely speaks his opinions.

As in his conversation with Norfolk earlier in the play, More becomes fervent about his opinions concerning Henry only after a ruling has already been made. More’s final outburst also exemplifies the philosophy More explained to Roper and Margaret in Act Two, scene six, when he said that we may “clamor” only once we know that God has chosen the correct time. Sentenced to death and assured that God has willed that he must die, More finally feels he can teach by speaking out.

Throughout the play, the Common Man becomes increasingly complicit in More’s death. Matthew betrays More in a roundabout way in the first act, and the innkeeper proves to be an accomplice as well, but the Common Man’s roles as jailer, juryman, and executioner implicate the Common Man in a less ambiguous manner. They also implicate the audience. Immediately after the execution, the Common Man says that he is still breathing and asks the audience members if they too are breathing. His question makes the audience aware of the fact that each person could have his or her head on the chopping block. If there is any question over how one can stay alive, the Common Man offers advice, then implies that his advice is not a secret but rather common knowledge understood by common men and women. This comment associates the audience directly with his title and his characters. Still, his advice is not moral but mean in nature, in line with the various roles he plays. The Common Man’s job is to do his job, to fit any number of social roles without rocking the boat.

The Common Man’s final command to his audience, “If we should bump into one another, recognize me,” recalls More’s statements about how people can only guess at what he is throughout the play and that very few people can actually truly know him. The Common Man’s command is rather absurd in one sense because he plays so many characters that it would be difficult to recognize him among us. But the Common Man’s warning implies that people will have no problem recognizing who has a common nature, for just as most of the characters in the play are base, most real people are base. Whereas More indicates that we cannot really know him, a man of conscience, the Common Man wishes us to understand that we can recognize and preferably avoid shallowness and “common” qualities when we see them.