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ACT ONE, SCENE ONE
The Common Man, an unusual character in that he plays many roles within the play, puts on clothes appropriate for Matthew, the household steward of Sir Thomas More. Sir Thomas More is the title character and we are in his home. Matthew prepares the table and takes a drink of the wine he has set out. After doing so, he says that the Sixteenth Century is the century of the common man. Then, he adds “Like all the other centuries.”
Sir Thomas More enters and asks for the wine. He questions whether it is good. Matthew denies knowing.
Richard Rich enters as Matthew regards him contemptuously. Rich continues the argument he is having with More. Rich believes that every man can be bought, even if the reward offered is only that the man will not be made to suffer. Rich admits that Thomas Cromwell has interested him in the writings of Machiavelli. He adds that Cromwell will do something for him.
More, obviously thinking that aid from Cromwell, such as a job, might bring temptations to Rich, offers to get him a job with The Dean of St. Paul’s as a teacher.
When Rich is not impressed, Sir Thomas counsels him against temptation. More shows Rich a silver cup that was given to More in the past. More tells him that, after accepting the gift, he had realized that it was a bribe. Because of that, More is eager to be rid of the cup. Then, More agrees to give the cup to Rich.
Rich plans to buy clothes with the proceeds from the sale of cup. More suggests that Rich might consider it to be contaminated. Rich denies that it is.
More thinks that being a teacher would keep Rich away from temptation. Rich is not interested in the position even after More tells him that he would have the admiration of his pupils and friends.
The Duke of Norfolk enters and Matthew announces his arrival. With him is Alice, Sir Thomas More’s wife. Norfolk and Alice continue a conversation that they are having about a falcon stooping down out of a cloud to attack a heron. Margaret, Thomas More’s daughter, also enters. Matthew announces her arrival in glowing terms, causing Alice to shoo him away. Norfolk, after calling Alice ignorant, tells Margaret, also called Meg, about what they are discussing. Rich interjects Aristotle’s explanation of the difference between clouds and mist. Norfolk says that he will take Alice and show her what he means if she can ride. More forbids her to go. Sir Thomas takes the story to a different level, using it to say that his problem concerning King Henry VIII will resolve itself.
More returns to Rich’s reference to Aristotle. He tells Norfolk that Rich is now interested in Machiavelli. When Norfolk mentions Machiavelli’s book, he is surprised to learn that Margaret has read it.
Rich starts to discuss Lord Cromwell’s thoughts on Machiavelli. Norfolk interrupts; voicing surprise that Rich knows Cromwell. When Norfolk refers to Cromwell as the Cardinal’s secretary, More, Alice and Margaret are surprised.
More tells Rich that he no longer needs his help now that he knows the Cardinal’s secretary. Rich tells him that he prefers his help to Cromwell’s.
Just then Matthew presents a letter from Cardinal Wolsey to More. More says it is regarding the King’s business. Alice comments that it is more likely the Queen’s business and Norfolk agrees. More has to go immediately to meet the Cardinal. He tells Alice and Margaret to go to bed and asks Rich and Norfolk to excuse him. More, Alice and Margaret say a quick evening prayer together.
More tells Norfolk that Rich is seeking employment and also needs a ride. Norfolk agrees to give him a ride but first tells Alice that they will hawk together soon. More counsels against it.
Rich picks up the silver cup and Matthew questions his right to do so. Rich explains that it is a gift from More.
Matthew voices his displeasure at More’s generosity. He says “...someday someone’s going to ask him for something that he wants to keep, and he will be out of practice. There must be something that he wants to keep.”
The Common Man in Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, represents all of us. His attitudes are those of everyone. He acts like everyone would act, no better, no worse. He is not a copy of Sir Thomas More to be sure. But, neither is he the opposite. He is interested in survival, self-preservation and a minimum of pain.
At the beginning of the scene, Matthew, the first of the Common Man characters, tastes the wine that he puts on the table at Sir Thomas More’s home. But, he hides that fact when Sir Thomas asks him if it is good, claiming ignorance. This avoids the chance of any unpleasantness.
Sir Thomas uses the conversation that Norfolk has with his wife and daughter regarding a falcon stooping on a heron as a chance to assure Alice and Margaret that danger subsides. He is well aware of dangers on the horizon but does not want to cause them to worry by addressing the dangers directly.
Norfolk was the Third Duke of Norfolk. He was also the Earl of Surrey. He married Lady Anne of York, daughter of Edward IV 1495. This made him a brother-in-law of King Henry VII, King Henry VIII’s father. Norfolk’s father, who held the same titles, played an important role in the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, the battle that ended the War of the Roses and brought the Tudor dynasty to power. His father also had an important part in the battle of Flodden Field in 1513. While King Henry VIII was in France, Norfolk was in charge of defending the realm. The queen of France persuaded King James IV of Scotland to invade northern England, thereby helping the French cause. This led to the battle of Flodden Field, which the English won. While his father had a more important role, Norfolk also fought at Flodden Field. Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, was Norfolk’s niece. Norfolk encouraged her relationship with the king. When she lost favor with the king, Norfolk also turned on her. Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was also Norfolk’s niece.
Richard Rich’s reference to Machiavelli foreshadows the ruthless way he and Thomas Cromwell will act in the near future.
Richard Rich’s desire to find a position and riches that will bring him status foreshadows his future choices. Sir Thomas could not interest him in being a teacher even when More mentioned the respect that he would get from his pupils and friends.
Matthew remarks at the end of the scene:
“My master Thomas More would give anything to anyone. Some say that’s good and some say that’s bad, but I say he can’t help it and that’s bad...because some day someone is going to ask him for something that he wants to keep; and he will be out of practice. There must be something that he wants to keep. That’s only common sense.”
These remarks foreshadow More’s giving of his own life. He was not able to keep his life without giving up his sense of self, which he wanted even more.