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Cromwell tells More that Rich will be recording their
conversation. More compliments Rich’s fancy outfit. Cromwell admits
that he greatly admires More, but as Rich starts to write that down,
Cromwell stops him. More asks what the charges against him are,
but Cromwell insists there are no charges, just questions. More
asks Rich to record the fact that there are no charges.
Getting down to business, Cromwell announces that the
king is not pleased with More and would reward More handsomely if
he would only change his mind. More refuses. Cromwell changes the subject,
bringing up the Holy Maid of Kent, a woman who was executed for
sermonizing against the king. More admits that he knew her and sympathized
with her, but when Cromwell accuses him of having withheld information
about her treasonous talk, More assures him that their conversations
were not political in nature. He even says he knows people who can
testify to the fact that they were completely innocent.
Cromwell then accuses More of having written A
Defense of the Seven Sacraments, a work attributed to King
Henry himself. More admits that he answered a few of the king’s
questions on canon law, but he denies that he wrote the book, which
defends the pope’s authority in England. When Cromwell finally broaches
the subject of Queen Anne, More says that the king told him not
to inquire about that anymore. He calls Cromwell’s accusations empty threats.
Cromwell then produces a letter from the king, who calls More a
villain and a traitor. More is finally unsettled, and Cromwell excuses
him. Cromwell tells Rich that the king has said More will die if
he does not consent. Cromwell says that, as a man of conscience,
the king cannot abide what he sees as More’s disapproval.
Outside, More tries to hail a boat, but no one will stop
for him. Norfolk enters and says he has been following More. He
points out that it is dangerous even to know More, much less be
seen with him, but he tells More about Cromwell’s smear campaign
and his own role in it. More insists that Norfolk must forget their
friendship and do his duty. But Norfolk protests that such a thing
is impossible. Norfolk announces that the only solution is for More
to change his mind, an idea that More finds impossible. Norfolk
sarcastically protests that the only thing steadfast in this world
is the fact that More will not give in to the king, and More replies
that he thinks highly of friendship but must remain loyal above
all to his own self.
More picks a fight with Norfolk that is playful but that
has serious undertones. He accuses Norfolk of neglecting his own
conscience by giving in to the amoral actions of the state, and
he suggests that Norfolk is not fit for heaven. Norfolk finally
gets angry, hits More, and departs. Just then, Margaret and Roper
arrive to announce a new act in Parliament that calls for the administration
of an oath regarding the king’s marriage. More asks about the wording
of the oath, hoping he will be able to take it with a clear conscience.
More describes for them his philosophy about man’s struggle for
life. More says that God made angels to show him splendor, animals
to show innocence, and plants to display simplicity. God made man,
however, “to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind!” More
goes on to say that man’s lot is to try to escape death for as long
as possible, until it becomes evident that his time has come. When
men finally die, More clarifies to Roper, men can rant and “clamor
like champions,” showing God splendor. Until then, More proposes,
they go home and look over the king’s new act.
Rich’s fancy costumes highlight his slow but steady rise
through the ranks of the royal administration. More’s comment about
Rich’s attire recalls Rich’s grumbling in his first scene with More
about his shabby clothes. We have witnessed Rich’s moral undoing,
and throughout the rest of the play, we watch as he reaps the benefits
of his evil ways. The contrast between the servile, pathetic Rich
in Act One and Rich the haughty administrator in Act Two continues throughout
The meeting between More and Norfolk in Act Two, scene
six, shows the complexity of More’s convictions with regard to friendship,
conscience, and duty. Norfolk, More’s most faithful friend, has not
refused to help prosecute More, so he is understandably flustered
and confused as he wrestles with his own conscience. More’s reaction
to Norfolk reveals that More never assumes that he truly knows someone
else. He may like people and wish to help and teach them, but he
can know only himself, and he does not judge others until they truly
impinge upon his conscience.
More’s statement to Norfolk “[Y]ou must cease to know
me . . . as a friend” can be interpreted in different ways. More
advises Norfolk to cease their friendship so that Norfolk may obey
his patriotic duty to the king without a guilty conscience. On the
one hand, More might be sincere in speaking these words to Norfolk,
since More’s advice that Norfolk should “cease to know” him accords
to More’s strong sense of patriotic duty. Also, More follows this
statement by telling Norfolk to think about the safety of Norfolk’s
son, a comment that illustrates More’s love of family.
On the other hand, More’s comment that Norfolk should
cease knowing him might be insincere. Later in the scene, More attacks Norfolk
for being a spineless traitor to his own conscience while defending
the irreligious, “rat-dog pedigree” that the king and the state
have become. More’s decision to pick a fight could mean that he
was never sincere in the first place. If so, More’s command that Norfolk
“cease to know” him implies that Norfolk needs to consider the implications
of obeying his king if doing so means living with a guilty conscience
for betraying his friend. Moreover, More’s allusion to Norfolk’s
son might suggest that by sacrificing his conscience for his irreligious
king, Norfolk will set a poor example for his son.
In the middle of their conversation, More asks the confused
and troubled Norfolk what he should do. When Norfolk can only ask More
to submit to the king’s wishes and go against More’s own conscience,
More finally becomes confrontational and harsh. More cannot tolerate
the fact that Norfolk’s priorities are not clear. More feels Norfolk
should follow his conscience, whether it tells him to be loyal to
his king or to his friend. Absurdly, More even tries to show Norfolk
that he could live a content, guilt-free life even
if Norfolk plays a role in More’s persecution. More knows that Norfolk
would be justified in his actions for several reasons, including
his patriotic and familial duties. More goes even further to make
it easy on Norfolk’s conscience by showing that if Norfolk simply
parts company with him, he will be doing so as a friend.
There is a striking parallel between More’s behavior
here and in the final scene of the play. In this scene, More decides
to unleash his criticisms of Norfolk only after he has decided that
the two should no longer be friends. In contrast, in the play’s
final scene, he begins to speak his mind only after he has been
convicted of a crime and sentenced to death. More’s philosophical
lesson to Margaret and Roper at the close of scene six shows that
men are allowed to “clamor” only once they know that their predestined
end has arrived. Perhaps More feels similarly about his friendship
with Norfolk and tries to make Norfolk fully aware of Norfolk’s
ill-behavior only once More knows their friendship has come to an
The oath discussed at the end of scene six was administered
by Henry’s government in 1536. All Church
and lay government officials were required to swear their allegiance
to Henry as the head of the Church of England, and to recognize
and approve the Church’s break with Rome. Henry’s conduct in this
matter reflected a shift from the time-honored medieval tradition
in which rulers were the arbiters of lawmaking and civil conduct
toward the more modern custom in which kings are also the ideological
figureheads of their countries.
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