Alice chastises More for having angered the king. More protests that his opinion is actually of little importance to Henry, but of grave importance to himself. He says that he does not hope to “rule” the king but that he must absolutely rule himself. He also suggests that the king may have left to be with Anne Boleyn—not because he was angry.
Roper arrives and asks More whether he should take a seat that he has been offered in the next Parliament. He admits that his views have changed on Church reform. He still has concerns about Catholicism but considers the Catholic Church itself to be sacred. When Roper grows passionate in his stance against reformations like the one Henry is implementing, More reminds Roper that as chancellor, there are “certain things” he cannot hear. Roper accuses More of corruption, saying that More, in maintaining his position, has learned to flatter the court and the king.
Rich arrives and behaves in a defensive manner. He is suspicious to find that Roper has heard of him and wrongly suspects that he is no longer welcome in More’s home. Rich tells More that Cromwell and Chapuys have been checking up on him, and he mentions Matthew’s duplicity. More tells him he is not surprised—such information-gathering is to be expected. When Rich breaks down and asks again for employment, More turns him away.
This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s.See Important Quotations Explained
Everyone tells More to arrest Rich, but More reminds them that Rich has done nothing illegal. More and Roper argue over the respective places of man’s and God’s laws in human society. Roper accuses More of believing only in the law, not in God. More asserts that he believes in God but that man’s law offers a safe haven in an uncertain universe. He says, “God’s my god. . . . But I find him rather too subtle. . . . I don’t know where he is nor what he wants.” More tells Roper that while living on earth, he puts his faith in the law. Moreover, More claims that he stands on firm ground and that Roper is lost at sea, with his “seagoing principles.” Again, More denies Roper his daughter’s hand in marriage. More exits forcefully, but reenters to apologize for criticizing Roper harshly. He then explains to Alice and Margaret that he considers himself to be safe in the matter of the divorce because he has not broken any law or disobeyed the king.
This lengthy scene contains King Henry’s only appearance in the play, and he proves to be an arrogant and unpredictable man. Henry is polite and friendly until he feels that his own power or needs are being undermined. Just as readily as Henry expresses his feelings of friendship for More, he shouts and storms offstage. When Henry first meets Margaret, he tactfully compliments her scholarship, but as soon as she shows that she knows more Latin than he does, he changes the subject. The entire company plays along with the idea that Henry’s visit is a surprise, even though both sides show that preparation for such a visit is required and expected.
Henry’s visit shows that he values appearances over truth. Yet he demands both simultaneously, even though they often contradict one another. For example, he requires More and his family to bear the burden of planning for his surprise and of convincing him that they are indeed surprised. He expects Margaret to take a compliment tactfully and at the same time to hide the fact that it is tact that keeps her quiet. Unlike the Machiavellians Cromwell and Rich, King Henry is not simply content to do whatever is most convenient for his political advantage. Instead, he wants to do whatever he likes and at the same time feel morally upright. If the other characters can choose only between their personal advancement (chosen by Cromwell and Rich) and their conscience (More), Henry believes that he can have both, by using his power to influence others to ease his conscience.
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