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A single spotlight reveals a red robe and the cardinal’s
hat lying on the floor. The Common Man enters to describe Cardinal
Wolsey’s death, which was officially attributed to pulmonary pneumonia
but, for all intents and purposes, was caused by the king’s displeasure with
Wolsey’s handling of the divorce. Wolsey died on his way to jail for
the crime of high treason. Thomas More, the Common Man reports,
was appointed Wolsey’s successor. The Common Man jokes that More
is considered by some to be a saint and that if one acknowledges
his stubborn disregard of ordinary reality, then he probably was
Cromwell and Rich run into each other at Hampton Court.
Belittling Rich’s new job—Rich is now Norfolk’s secretary and librarian—Cromwell
mentions that he himself was promoted into the king’s service. He
asks Rich why he does not have a better job since the new Lord Chancellor,
Sir Thomas More, is his old friend. When Rich sheepishly replies
that he and More are not really friends, Cromwell takes the opportunity
to dangle a job offer before him, presumably in exchange for some
Suddenly suspicious, Rich asks Cromwell what exactly
he does for the king, and just then Signor Chapuys enters and asks
the same question. Cromwell skirts the issue but finally explains
that he does whatever the king “wants done.” As an example, Cromwell
mentions that he recently arranged Henry’s trip down the Thames
on the maiden voyage of a new battleship, the Great Harry. After
Chapuys reminds Cromwell that the ship has fewer guns than Cromwell
has claimed, Cromwell tells Chapuys that the king plans to sail
the ship to More’s house to discuss the king’s divorce. Shocked,
Signor Chapuys complains that More has already expressed his opinion
on the matter. Cromwell insists that the king hopes to make More change
More’s steward, Matthew (played by the Common Man), appears,
and all three men are eager to talk to him. Cromwell pushes Chapuys
out of view and questions Matthew about More’s opinions concerning
the divorce, holding up a coin for Matthew to see. Matthew tells
him that More is so anxious that he turns white as a sheet whenever
the subject is mentioned. Cromwell pays Matthew for his information
and beckons Rich to come with him as he leaves. Rich protests that
he knows nothing, and heads off in the other direction.
Meanwhile, Chapuys has returned. From Matthew, he learns that
More is a religiously observant. Chapuys also pays off Matthew and
leaves. Finally, Rich returns and asks Matthew what he told Chapuys.
Matthew tells him, and Rich points out that the information is common
knowledge. Matthew explains that he told Chapuys what he wanted
to hear. Alone, Matthew addresses the audience, reveling in the
fact that he tricked three men into paying him off for little bits
of common knowledge. He imagines that the men will make a big deal
and a big secret out of their discoveries so that they do not feel
Wolsey’s death sets into motion the clash between More
and the king that has been building for the play’s first four scenes.
The Common Man’s announcement in Act One, scene five, that Wolsey’s death
was effectively the result of Henry’s displeasure foreshadows the
dangers of More’s appointment as Wolsey’s replacement. We realize
that More must now take on the prickly situation of securing Henry’s
divorce or else find a way to avoid the same dire consequence that
Wolsey faced. The dramatic use of a spotlight to focus attention
on Wolsey’s garments, which are symbolic of More’s new position,
underlines the position’s tenuousness. The Common Man’s joke about
the incompatibility of sainthood and high office provides a lighthearted
moment that acknowledges the price More pays for his unwillingness
to sacrifice his own conscience for the sake of his life or the
demands of others.
The entrances, exits, double talk, bribery, and deceit
in scene six showcase the political environment that More will have
to contend with as Lord Chancellor. However, the Common Man’s bribing
of Chapuys, Cromwell, and Rich poses no actual threat to More but satirizes
those who do not know how to operate except through lies and deception.
Matthew takes advantage of all three men by offering them nothing
but the most well known information about More. These exchanges
link with a later scene in the play when Cromwell suspects a lowly
innkeeper, also played by the Common Man, of being even craftier
than himself when the innkeeper plays dumb about Cromwell’s conspiracy.
The Common Man is both common, meaning universal, and common,
meaning lowly. By playing lower-class characters, he serves as a
magnet for the double-dealings of kings and cardinals, and in doing
so he questions the assumptions frequently made about the lower
class’s lack of morality. A sixteenth-century butler, a lower class
individual, was assumed to have no moral scruples. Later, More himself
takes it for granted that Matthew has betrayed him, showing that
even More buys into the stereotypes of his time. Yet Matthew turns
bribe-taking into a means of attack. He engages with others in a
manner that is dishonest on the surface, but he does so to cheat
his bribers with information that is not technically secret.
At the same time, the Common Man does not tell More about
the people who are plotting against him. Throughout the play, he
dupes More’s adversaries, but he does so only for the audience’s
eyes. As the play progresses, the Common Man (or rather, the characters
he plays) has a harder time reconciling his acts with More’s kind
treatment of him. Although the Common Man plays many roles, all
his characters develop in a unified fashion, as though they were
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Man for All Seasons!