The insurrection that the characters talk about in this act is based on a historical event. King Henry did have to contend with an insurrection in the north similar to the one Chapuys threatens to stir up among discontented English subjects. The so-called Pilgrimage of Grace erupted in the aftermath of Henry’s break with Rome, partly as a result of poor economic conditions. Fortunately for Henry, the revolt was ultimately put down.
It is difficult to discuss Brecht’s alienation technique (see Context), for the technique must be experienced. Essentially, through alienation, an actor can make a comment to the audience about the character he is playing, even while he is speaking the lines of the character. The actor uses direct conversation with the audience, an ironic tone, exaggerated movements or gestures, or other techniques to force the audience to judge him. Matthew’s monologue about his distrust of More uses the technique to invite the audience to judge what he’s saying. He discusses how More is just playing the role of an insincere, money grubbing noble, and he tells the audience that Matthew himself is nothing more than emptiness. He says that even though human beings want to believe in things that are not practical—he wishes for rain to be beer, for instance—we always return to the cold, hard fact that life is somewhat miserable and that base men are base and empty men are empty. Almost laughing, Matthew says he “almost fell for it.” Matthew, or the Common Man who is playing Matthew’s character, actually wants us to question whether he should have fallen for a more optimistic view of life. Matthew seems to assume that the audience will agree with his analysis of man’s nature, but if the audience does not, then Matthew has alienated himself from them in such a way that they will think less of him.