COMMON MAN: (Rises) It is perverse! To start a play made up of Kings and Cardinals in speaking costumes and intellectuals with embroidered mouths, with me. (1.2)
Quite a way to kick things off, huh? Common Man's amusing adjective switcheroo aside (put "speaking" and "embroidered" in each other's places to understand this one), this opening line tells us exactly what to expect from the play. As you'll see, all those politicians and bigwigs aren't exactly good dudes, or anything like that. Have they ever been?
MORE: But, Richard, in office they offer you all sort of things. I was once offered a whole village, with a mill, and a manor house, and heaven knows what else. (1.66)
In 16th-century England, bribery is so common among politicians that it's pretty much an official business practice. That's a big stinkin' problem, Shmoopers. If we were to explain it by means of a math equation, we'd say that politicians + corruption = bad times for everyone who's not a politician.
WOLSEY: Let him die without an heir and we'll have them back again. Let him die without an heir and this "peace" you think so much of will go out like that! (1.228)
Henry's desire to divorce his wife is more than a personal issue. It's more than a moral issue. It's more than a religious issue, even—it's a political one. Henry's the stinkin' King, after all, which means that his family drama has the potential to throw an entire country (maybe even a whole continent) into chaos.
CHAPUYS: Ah. (Mock interest) But then why these Justices, Chancellors, Admirals?
CROMWELL: Oh, they are the constitution. Our ancient, English constitution. I merely do things. (1.404)
In other words, Cromwell is like that shady modern lobbyist who works backroom political deals with little regard for silly things like laws and regulations. That's what makes him so evil in comparison to More. While More follows the law to the letter, Cromwell just crumples it up and throws it away.
MORE: (Eagerly) Then why does Your Grace need my poor support?
HENRY: Because you are honest. What's more to the purpose, you're known to be honest. (1.566)
Basically, Henry knows that More's refusal to acknowledge his divorce is really bad P.R., and even though the dude doesn't have to run for election, he still wants to have a stable, easily controllable political environment. Getting More to change his tune is going to be a lot easier said than done, however. Also, note that honesty itself isn't really the issue when it comes to politics—it's the appearance of honesty that matters. You don't need the truth in politics; you just need truthiness.
HENRY [...] There are those like Norfolk who follow me because I wear the crown, and there are those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals [...] and there is you. (1.566)
Let's break this one down. Norfolk is the kind of dude who follows the existing political order blindly: he follows Henry because them's the rules. Cromwell is the kind of dude who can see through the political order and who uses that insight for his own corrupt benefit. More, on the other hand, is a different beast entirely: he follows his own conscience above all else.
CHAPUYS: My Lord, I cannot believe you will allow yourself to be associated with the recent actions of King Henry! In respect of Queen Catherine.
MORE: Subjects are associated with the actions of King willy-nilly. (2.51-52)
It's worth noting that More is hardly the rebellious type. He seems to have a strong amount of respect for Henry, and he never does anything to subvert the King's authority. That's why he gets so annoyed when Chapuys bursts into the scene and tries to make it seem like they're political allies. They might follow the same religion, but More is still a loyal British subject.
NORFOLK: Yes! Crank he may be, traitor he is not.
CROMWELL: (Spreading his hands) And with a little pressure, he can be got to say so. And that's all we need—a brief declaration of his loyalty to the present administration. (2.174-175)
Here's a pro-tip, with the 20/20 hindsight of history: making people take loyalty oaths is always a bad idea in the long run. Not only does it lead to the deaths of people who don't deserve to die—like More—but it also represents an frighteningly authoritarian impulse that could easily snowball into something far nastier. Not a good look for anyone involved.
COMMON MAN: [...] "Thomas Cromwell was found guilty of High Treason and executed on 28 July, 1540. Norfolk was found guilty of High Treason [...] on 27, January 1547." (2.459)
The two men who got Thomas More executed for treason (a crime he didn't commit) end up getting convicted of treason themselves later on in the game. Funny how things work out sometimes, huh? In an even juicier bit of gossip, Cromwell was also supposedly responsible for the execution of Anne Boleyn—the woman Henry divorces Catherine to marry.
MORE: That's very neat. But look now...If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. (2.609)
Dang—leave it to More to lay it all out on the table like that. Basically, More knows that the British political system is corrupt as all get-out; you'd have to be blind to miss that. But that doesn't mean he'll let the system corrupt him, too. Unlike most people, More sees the immoral political actions taken by his peers as incentive to be a better man himself.
MORE: Talk of the Cardinal's Secretary and the Cardinal appears. He wants me. Now.
ALICE: At this time of the night?
MORE: (Mildly) The King's business. (1.141-143)
'Nough said—if the King wants to talk to you in the middle of the night, then you can better believe you'll drop whatever you're doing and meet him. That's just how things roll in a monarchy, folks.
CROMWELL: [...] It's odd how differently men's fortunes flow. My late master, Wolsey, died in disgrace, and here I am in the King's own service. There you are in a competitive backwater—yet the new Lord Chancellor's an old friend of yours. (1.389)
We can't say that we're too fond of Cromwell, but the dude can humble-brag like a master. That's got to count for something, right? Yeah, maybe not. Basically, Cromwell is the most power-hungry character in the play: no matter what he's doing, he's always exploiting his situation to gain more power for himself. And what happens if something silly like morality or legality gets in his way? Pshh. Cromwell doesn't even know how to spell the word "morality."
MORE: (Appearing momentarily from the folds of the cassock) The service of God is not a dishonor to any office. (The cassock is pulled off) Believe me, my friend, I do not belittle the honor His Majesty is doing me (1.490)
In contrast, More doesn't have an ambitious bone in his body. It's not that he's opposed to being a powerful politician, or that he doesn't think he'd do a good job—he's just not that into it. If he can help his country by being a Chancellor, then he'll do that. If he can help it by being a pauper, then he'll do that, too. Power isn't even in the equation for More.
HENRY: [...] Be seated—it was villainy then! Yes, villainy. I was right to break him; he was all pride, Thomas; a proud man; pride right through. And he failed me! (1.548)
Yikes—take a chill pill, buddy. The conversation between Henry and More at More's home is an important one, as it's the first (and last) time we meet this mighty regent in the flesh. And boy, does he put on a show. Although things start off cordially, it quickly becomes clear that Henry won't cotton to anything that undermines his power.
HENRY: [...] It is my bounden duty to put away the Queen, and all the Popes back to St. Peter shall not come between me and my duty! How it that you cannot see? (1.564)
Although it might be tempting to paint Henry as an out-of-control King who's obsessed with his own power, it's a little more complicated than that. After all, Henry has the entire country of England riding on his back, for better or for worse—that kind of pressure can get to your head. What's more, he knows that there will be steep consequences if he is unable to produce an heir.
HENRY: No opposition, I say! No opposition! Your conscience is your own affair, but you are my Chancellor! (1.584)
As his conversation with More continues, Henry drops the intellectual trappings of his anti-Catholicism argument and lays his cards on the table—More will do what he says because the King is saying it. In other words, More better check himself before he wrecks himself.
CROMWELL: [...] Yes, it may be that I am a little intoxicated. [...] With success! And who has a strong head for success? None of us gets enough of it, Except Kings. And they're born drunk. (1.731)
Doesn't sound pleasant, but it's a rather accurate assessment of the situation. When you live in a system in which all power is concentrated in one individual, it becomes inevitable that this individual will do some unpleasant, immoral stuff. The trick, according to Cromwell, is to keep kissing that powerful person's butt and grabbing the scraps they leave behind.
CROMWELL: [...] If the King destroys a man, that's proof to the King that it must have been a bad man, the kind of man a man of conscience ought to destroy. (2.389)
This kind of circular, Catch-22-esque logic tells us everything we need to know about the King's mindset. If he kills someone, then it goes without saying that the person deserved it; if he doesn't, then it goes without saying that they didn't. Yeesh—this is making our heads spin.
MORE: Death...comes for us all, my lords. Yes, even for King he comes, to whom amidst all their Royalty and brute strength he will neither kneel nor make them any reverence (2.701)
Well, he's not wrong. While More is more than willing to "give unto Caesar what is Caesar's" and all that, the dude's got no illusions. Henry might be able to dominate an entire country, he might be able to win a stare-down with the Pope, and he might be able to bend the aristocracy to his will, but his power doesn't mean anything to a guy like More.
COMMON MAN: [...] It isn't difficult to keep alive, friends—just don't make trouble—or if you must make trouble make the sort of trouble that's expected. (2.795)
In other words, if you're going to cause trouble, make sure you're not doing it to someone with a lot of power. That's not exactly a heartwarming moral—in fact, it's pretty cynical. Still, given the rather harrowing events of the play, we're not sure if we'd disagree with this assessment of the situation.
STEWARD: [...] My master Thomas More would give anything to anyone. [...] and that's bad...because some day someone's going to ask him for something that he wants to keep. (1.177)
Mmm, now this is some tasty foreshadowing. Even without that, however, this quote shows us a lot of More's moral character—that is to say, he's a really good dude. Unfortunately, he's going to learn the hard way that he might be the only member of the British aristocracy with anything resembling principles. In other words, this is going to be one wild ride.
WOLSEY: [...] You're a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint; with just a little common sense, you could been a statesman. (1.196)
Yeah, More, why are you always letting nonsense like "morals" stand in your way? This quote becomes even more fascinating when you remember that it's being spoken by a cardinal—you know, the kind of guy whose job it is to have sound moral judgment. This is our first real indication that More's going to have trouble maintaining his principled mindset.
MORE: Well...I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties...they lead their country by a short route to chaos. (1.229)
This might as well be More's personal motto. While other aristocratic figures seem more than willing to throw their consciences overboard in order not to rock the boat, More treats his principles like an anchor and holds fast. It's going to take quite the storm to move him from that spot.
ROPER: My views on the Church, I must confess—Since last we met my views have somewhat modified. (1.634)
Roper changes his deep-seated religious beliefs at the frequency that most people change pairs of underwear. Sure, he's a good dude (More wouldn't let him marry his daughter if he weren't), but he could never be described as principled.
MORE: [...] You see, we speak of being anchored to our principles. But if the weather turns nasty you up with an anchor and let it down where there's less wind, and the fishing's better. (1.717)
And here comes More blowing our "anchor" metaphor out of the water. Typical. Although he's talking about Roper here, he might as well be referring to every other character in the play. After all, does Norfolk follow his personal principles? Does Richard Rich? Nope. In both instances, seemingly good men turn against their deeply held principles simply to save their own skins.
CHAPUYS: Because it would show one man—and that man known to be temperate—unable to go further with this wickedness.
MORE: And that man known to be Chancellor of England too. (2.63)
More is tempted to make a stand against the King's divorce, but he's terrified of the consequences. That leaves him in an unenviable position—he's unable to turn against his personal principles, but he's equally unable to buck the system and make a stand. Talk about a sticky situation.
MORE: [...] But what matter to me is not whether it's true or not but that I believe it to be true, or rather, not that I believe it, but that I believe it...I trust I make myself obscure? (2.108)
Yep—completely obscure, More old buddy. The key here is to check the italics: the most important part of More's statement is the "I," not the "believe." In other words, the most important part of a belief system is not the truth of that system, or its efficacy in the real world—the most important part is that an individual is making a personal declaration.
ALICE: [...] I understand you're the best man that I ever met or am likely to; and if you go [...] And if anyone wants my opinion of the King and his Council they've only to ask for it! (2.656)
We'd be remiss if we didn't give the fiery Alice More her due credit in this department. Although More is quite principled, he frequently proves himself to be a Nervous Nellie. That's not so with Alice. Alice is not afraid of anyone (especially after what they've done to her husband), and she's more than happy to give people a piece of her mind. No wonder More calls her a lion.
MORE: In good faith, Rich, I am sorrier for your perjury than my peril. (2.754)
Think about this for one second. More is about to be executed, yet the thing he's worried about is the fact that Rich lied in court. If that doesn't show you More's principles, then we don't know what will.
MORE: [...] What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart. It is a long road you have opened. (2.767)
In the end, More realizes that this was inevitable. He might have been able to escape this nasty little decapitation situation if he had been willing to compromise his principles, true—but then he wouldn't be the Thomas More we know and love.
MORE: (Draws up his sleeve, baring his arm) There is my right arm [...] Take your dagger and saw it from my shoulder [...] if by that means I can come with Your Grace with a clear conscience. (1.525)
This is a littlemelodramatic, but we'll cut More some slack. See, he's actually a pretty conservative guy: he follows the law to the letter and has a great deal of respect for his boss, King Henry. That's why he's so confused about what to do regarding the King's divorce. No matter what he chooses, he'll end up betraying the political system he's spent his life defending.
HENRY: I have no Queen! Catherine is not my wife and no priest can make her so, and they that say she is my wife are not only liars...but traitors! Mind it, Thomas. (1.586)
Here, Henry is laying down the gauntlet: if More doesn't approve of his divorce from Queen Catherine, then More is a traitor. That's a serious accusation. What's more, there's probably nothing that makes the rule-abiding More more nervous than the thought of being known as a treacherous traitor and unrepentant law-breaker.
MORE: [...] The currents and eddies of right and wrong [...] I can't navigate. [...] But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt there's a man alive who could follow me there. (1.690)
Although he quietly disapproves of the King's plans to divorce Queen Catherine, More is convinced that his superior knowledge of the law will keep him safe from any shady political maneuverings. In his head, that would be like someone trying to beat the Incredible Hulk in a "Getting Angry" contest. Not going to happen, chumps.
ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of the law!
MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? (1.693-694)
This makes us think of a famous saying: those who would trade their freedom for protection deserve neither. In other words, if you get rid of good laws in order to catch bad people, you're only helping those bad people reach their goals, because the final result will be that it will become easier to get away with bad things now that the laws have been flattened.
MORE: Oh? (Advances on ROPER) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (1.696)
Sorry, Roper—you just got served, son. Here, More continues his train of thought from the previous quote, arguing that bypassing laws to do "good" always has negative consequences. Just think about Cromwell. He proves more than willing to throw the law away when it suits him, and we know how that ends up (hint: with his execution).
MORE: [...] I stand on the wrong side of no statute, and no common law. (Takes MEG'S hand too) I have not disobeyed my sovereign. I truly believe no man in England is more safe than myself. (1.711)
This is More's brilliant legal defense: complete and utter silence. And you know what? It almost works. Due to the intricacies of the British legal system, More can only be executed if he admits to committing treason. If he doesn't, he might be able to create enough reasonable doubt to keep himself for getting that gruesome neck-level haircut. It's a clever move.
NORFOLK: [...] The Pope's a Prince, isn't he?
MORE: He is.
NORFOLK: And a bad one?
MORE: Bad enough. But the theory is that he's also the Vicar of God the descendant of St. Peter, our only like with Christ. (2.101-104)
This is actually pretty similar to More's thought process regarding King Henry. Although More disagrees with many aspects of the King's political strategy, he still follows him because them's the rules. The same goes for the Pope. Man—More can't even look at religion without donning his lawyer cap.
MORE: [...] Signor Chapuys tells me he's just made a "tour" of the North Country. He thinks we shall have trouble there. So do I. (2.127)
Here, More is warning Norfolk about a possible armed uprising of loyal Catholics that he heard about from Chapuys. If this doesn't prove that More is sincerely devoted to the English government despite his religious reservations, then we don't know what will.
CROMWELL: [...] You're absolutely right, it must be done by law. It's just a matter of finding the right law. Or making one. (2.232)
We can't help but think back to More and Roper's conversation about the devil whenever Cromwell sticks his slimy little head into the scene. Dude might as well be sporting a pair of horns, wielding a pitchfork, and cackling about the eternal fires of hell. Do you think Cromwell's actions—or his mindset—might be construed as "evil"? Sure, Cromwell doesn't go around killing babies, but maybe his actions are what "evil" looks like in the real world? Food for thought.
MORE: The law is not a "light" for you or any man to see by; the law is not an instrument of any kind (2.714)
More has the perfect quip for any situation, and this is no exception. He also makes a great point—to think of the law as something to be used makes it inevitable that the law will be exploited at some point in the future.
MORE: (Sits) A dispensation was granted so that the King might marry Queen Catherine, for state reasons. Now we are to ask the Pope to—dispense with his dispensation, also for state reasons? (1.219)
If this seems like a strange quote to kick off a section about religion, then you're not wrong—that's just how things roll in A Man for All Seasons. In the modern world, we talk a lot about the barrier between church and state, but that concept was pretty much unheard of in 16th-century England. For them, politics and religion were deeply intertwined.
MORE: As Your Grace pleases.
WOLSEY: As God wills!
MORE: Perhaps, You Grace. (1.241-243)
Note the subtle contradiction between More's and Cardinal Wolsey's words. Basically, More is insinuating that Wolsey isn't acting in a Christ-like fashion.
MORE: [...] Two years ago you were a passionate Churchman; now you're a passionate—Lutheran. We must just pray that when your head's finished turning, your face is to the front again. (1.333)
And here's the sick burn courtesy of our main man Thomas More. Better start looking for some aloe, Roper. Jokes aside, this statement illustrates More's beef with most of his aristocratic peers: their beliefs go whichever way the wind blows—even their religious beliefs.
HENRY: [...] Yes, he wanted to be the Bishop of Rome. I'll tell you something, Thomas, and you can check this for yourself—it was never merry in England while we had Cardinals amongst us. (1.548)
Although we know that the real reason King Henry wants to distance himself from the Catholic Church is his desire for a divorce, he attempts to couch his objections in theological terms. It's not very believable. By the way, calling the Pope the "Bishop of Rome" is a not-so-subtle jab: it evokes the Protestant argument that the Pope was originally meant to be a normal bishop, not an all-powerful leader.
HENRY: [...] I stand in peril of my soul. It was no marriage; she was my brother's widow. Leviticus: "Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother's wife." (1.560)
Do you really think that Henry gives two hoots about the laws of the Old Testament? If he did, he'd have to give up shellfish, too, but we doubt he's doing that. And, oh, yeah—if he cared that much, he probably wouldn't have married his brother's widow, either. Henry is clearly just grasping at straws in order to facilitate his divorce with Catherine (not to mention ease his own conscience).
HENRY: (Reprovingly) Thomas, Thomas, does a man need a Pope to tell him when he's sinned? It was a sin, Thomas; I admit it; I repent. (1.564)
If this is true, then why does Henry need to start a new religion? We're not taking the Pope's side or anything, but it's clear by now that most of Henry's issues with the Church are political rather than spiritual in nature, even though he attempts to frame them in theological terms.
MORE: I? What stands between them is a sacrament of the Church. I'm less important than you think, Alice. (1.612)
For his part, More is absolutely dedicated to the Catholic Church, which is maybe a little odd when you think about it. After all, it's not like he's especially spiritual. He's not even much of a fan of the current Pope. Regardless, the age-old traditions of Catholicism are what keep him coming back.
ROPER: My god wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else!
MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God? He sounds like Moloch. (1.699-700)
Talk about a difference of opinions. While Roper is an absolute fanatic in his ever-shifting beliefs, More believes that logic is God's greatest gift to humankind.
CHAPUYS: (Approaching MORE, thrillingly) And how much longer shall we hear the holy language in these shores?
MORE: (Alert, poker-faced) 'Tisn't "holy," Your Excellency; just old. (2.49-50)
More might be religious, but he's a realist to the core. His beef with Henry isn't about foundational religious principles or mystical truths or life-changing spiritual principles. It's simply about his own unwavering personal commitment to his faith. That really bucks modern stereotypes about religious folks, huh?
MORE: [...] The [...] Act of Parliament [...] is directly repugnant to the Law of God. The King in Parliament cannot bestow the Supremacy of the Church because it is a Spiritual Supremacy! (2.783)
With his execution finally decided, More comes clean about his reason for refusing to sign Parliament's oath. In quintessentially More-like fashion, his opposition is based in legal reasoning—More believes that there should be a fifty-foot-high wall between political and religious matters. That's an incredibly forward-thinking mindset for the time.
CHAPUYS: (Ruffled) He has given his answer!
CROMWELL: The King will ask him for another. (1.413-414)
A Man for All Seasons rests upon a single choice: whether Thomas More should approve of King Henry's divorce from Queen Catherine or not. Trust us on this one—it's a sticky situation.
HENRY: Then you have not thought enough! (With real appeal) Great God, Thomas, why do you hold against me in the desire of my heart—the very wick of my heart? (1.554)
Initially, Henry makes a personal appeal to More by exploiting their long friendship and camaraderie. It works as well as a table tennis champion taking on Serena Williams. So that's when he takes things up a notch, throwing around his kingly weight to intimidate More into making the "right" choice. In a word: yikes. In two words: super yikes.
MORE: (Taking in her anxiety) Well, Alice. What would you want me to do?
ALICE: Be ruled! If you won't rule him, be ruled! (1.606-607)
That's a good point. As of yet, More hasn't made a choice—he's decided to stay silent so as not to incriminate himself. Alice eviscerates this argument, however, rightfully pointing out that he must make a decision sooner or later.
MORE: [...] I've resigned, that's all. On the King's Supremacy, the King's divorce which he'll now grant himself, the marriage he'll then make—have you heard me make a statement? (2.146)
Well, it looks like More is still refusing to make an official decision. Although he makes a half-choice by resigning from his position as Chancellor, he still refuses to take things all the way and give the King a piece of his mind. And why should he? This isn't a democracy—there aren't any town hall debates 'round these parts. If you get on the King's bad side then, well, that's bad.
ROPER: We don't need to know the [...] wording—we know what it will mean!
MORE: It will mean what the words say! An oath is made of words! It may be possible to take it. Or avoid it. (2.451-452)
If you told Thomas More that he had to choose between Option A and Option B, he'd probably start inquiring about the efficacy of Option C. It's just the guy's lawyerly nature. Unfortunately, he'll quickly learn that this latest oath from Parliament was created with a very express purpose—to force More to make his personal opinions public knowledge.
MORE: I insult no one. I will not take the oath. I will not tell you why I will not. (2.499)
More still refuses to explain himself, even after being imprisoned in the Tower, London's most-feared prison. Is this courage or just plain foolhardiness?
MORE: It's most material. For refusing to swear, my goods are forfeit and I am condemned to life imprisonment. You can not lawfully harm me further. (2.510)
And with that, we finally understand what More's been doing the entire time. He hasn't been avoiding making a choice. Instead, he's been working the legal system to his own benefit, using his unparalleled knowledge of the law to take a principled stand while simultaneously holding on to his head.
MORE: [...] When a man makes an oath, Meg, he's holding how own self in his own hands. Like water (He cups his hands) And if he opens his fingers then—he needn't hope to find himself again. (2.607)
The same could be said about the choices we make each and every day. In fact, More seems to look at oaths as choices in and of themselves—choices to either stand up for what you believe in or stick your tail between your legs and give in to the pressure of others. It would be hard to be as hard-nosed as our main man More, but we respect him a ton for staying true to himself.
MORE: [...] But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, [...] and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, [...] justice and thought [...] why then perhaps we must stand fast a little—even at the risk of being heroes. (2.609)
We can always count on More for the perfect expression of a difficult-to-express idea (we suppose we should actually be crediting Robert Bolt, of course). If doing the right thing were a profitable choice, then no one would be sincere—they'd simply be doing good to benefit themselves. But when you live in an immoral world? Well, to do good in that context is quite an accomplishment. And guess what? That's pretty much the kind of world we actually live in.
MORE: Alice, you must tell me that you understand!
ALICE: I don't! [...] I don't believe this had to happen. (2.649-650)
It's harsh, but it's the truth. This didn't have to happen—More could have just gone with the flow and lived out his life as a rich aristocratic sellout. But he didn't. He couldn't. For better or for worse, More will never choose to go against his beliefs.
MORE: (No longer flippant) If Wolsey fell, the splash would swamp a few small boats like ours. There will be no new Chancellors while Wolsey lives. (1.380)
While Wolsey is still Cardinal, More can rest easy—it provides a barrier between him and the King. But, as we all know, old Wolsey bites the dust pretty early on in the play, which leaves More terrifiedof what might come next. Whatever it is, it's not going to be pretty.
STEWARD: So he's worried, sir…(CROMWELL is interested) Frightened…(CROMWELL takes out a coin but pauses suspiciously) Sir, he goes white when it's mentioned. (1.425)
The subject Cromwell and Matthew are discussing here, by the way, is the King's divorce. More has refused to talk to anyone about the matter since becoming Chancellor, and this interaction reveals the very simple reason behind his reluctance: fear. Good old fear. You might laugh, but you'd be quaking in your boots too if you were in this situation.
MORE: [...] Alice… (She turns) Set your mind at rest—this (Tapping himself) is not the stuff of which martyrs are made. (1.617)
In other words, More is saying that he's too much of a scaredy-cat to get himself into trouble. We're not so convinced. Although it is obvious that More is terrified of what could happen to him (and his family), it's equally obvious that he won't back down.
RICH: You wouldn't find him easy to frighten! (CROMWELL exits. He calls after him) You've mistaken your man this times! He doesn't know how to be frightened! (1.801)
Rich obviously didn't get the memo that More is scared out of his mind. In many ways, however, this works against More. No one would care about his opinion if he were just some regular schmo on the street. Instead, his reputation as a staunch moralist makes his opinion even more valuable.
MORE: Don't! If your opinion's what I think it is, it's High Treason, Roper! [...] Will you remember you've a wife now! And may have children! (2.27)
This passage gives us insight into the nature of More's fear. He's not all that worried about what could happen to him, but he is worried about what could happen to Alice and Margaret. It would kill him if something happened to his family because of his actions.
MORE: [...] If the King takes this matter any further, with me or with the Church, it will be very bad, if I even appear to have been in the pay of the Church (2.305)
After resigning from the Chancellorship, More and his family are plunged straight into poverty. It's a nasty scene. Even with this newfound destitution, however, More is still so terrified that he refuses to accept any assistance that could link him back to the Church. Of course, he's also doing this to show that his decisions are his own, and that's an act of bravery.
MORE: (With a sudden, contemptuous sweep of his arms) They are terrors for children, Master Secretary—an empty cupboard! To frighten children in the dark, not me. (2.375)
Oh, wow—More's coming out swinging. Although we know that he's scared on the inside, More puts on a good show of confidence during his confrontation with the shadiest politician in the game, "Crooked" Tommy Cromwell. Of course, More's utter hatred of the guy makes this epic verbal smack-down all the more satisfying.
MORE: (Turns to go, pauses. Desperately) May I see my family? (2.542)
Once again, we see that More's main concern is his family. At this point, he knows he's up the creek without a paddle, but he still holds out hope that his fam will be safe.
ALICE: [...] I don't believe this had to happen.
MORE: (His face is drawn) If you say that, Alice, I don't see how I'm to face it. (2.650-651)
By now, the family has come to terms with reality: More will either be in prison for the rest of his life, or executed for treason. Neither is a great option. As for More, he's finally being forced to face the reality of his fears.
MORE: Have patience, Margaret, and trouble not thyself. Death comes for us all; even at out birth. (2.789)
Interestingly, all of More's fears evaporate as soon as he's convicted of treason. No longer is he concerned about legal loopholes or public oaths—he's accepted his fate and almost takes pride in it.
CROMWELL: [...] You may not know that the King himself will guide her down the river [...] He will have assistance, of course, but he himself will be her pilot. (1.406)
This is the 16th-century equivalent of those gaudy presidential photo-ops that show wealthy politicians pretending to spend time with regular folks. In other words, it's about as phony as you can get. Still, you better prepare yourself—we've just started to scratch the surface of the hypocrisy present in A Man for All Seasons.
STEWARD: [...] What I can tell them's common knowledge! But now they've given money for it and everyone wants value for his money. (1.459)
For context, the steward has just leaked information to Chapuys and Cromwell regarding More's decision. The gist of it is that he hasn't made one. Regardless, this humble common man has just sparked a whirl of twisted political machinations that won't stop spinning.
HENRY: No ceremony, Thomas! No ceremony! (They rise) A passing fancy—I happened to be on the river. (Holds out a show, proudly) Look, mud. (1.504)
Yes, this is just a casual visit from one friend to another, not a pre-planned stop on a publicity tour by the most powerful man in England. (We're being sarcastic, of course.) Although Henry dons an approachable, folksy style when we first meet him, we can see right through the facade.
HENRY: [...] Now that's a wrestler's leg. But I can throw him. (Seizes NORFOLK) Shall I show them, Howard? (NORFOLK is alarmed for his dignity) (1.518)
Norfolk is alarmed because he knows thathe could kick Henry's butt from here to Timbuktu, but he also knows that doing so would be a borderline treasonous move. It's a funny thing, being a king, huh?
CROMWELL: We feel that, since you are [...] a friend of More's, your participation will show that there is nothing in the nature of a "persecution," but only the strict processes of law. (2.220)
Here's a pro-tip from us, Shmoopers: if you have to actively make something look less like a persecution, then you're probably persecuting someone. Unfortunately, Cromwell hardly agrees. He either wants More's signature on the dotted line or his head on a platter, and he doesn't care how he gets his results.
NORFOLK: [...] We're supposed to be the arrogant ones, the proud, splenetic ones—and we've all given in! Why must you stand out? (2.417)
More's steadfastness only highlights the spinelessness of his peers. In many ways, his mere existenceis a reminder of their weakness, their cowardice, and their hypocrisy. This goes double in Norfolk's case, as he and More were once as thick as thieves.
MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; [...] if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? (2.520)
Leave it to More to express things far more eloquently than we ever could, perfectly explaining his refusal to go with the flow and accept the King's divorce. It might not matter to his friends. It might not matter to his fellow leaders. Heck, it might not even matter to his family. But More could never live with himself knowing that he's a hypocrite.
CROMWELL: [...] He must submit, the alternatives are bad. While More's alive the King's conscience breaks into fresh stinking flowers every time he gets from bed. (2.570)
This one came as a surprise for us: the King apparently feels super guilty about divorcing Queen Catherine. We might even say that he feels bad about the hypocrisy of his actions. Fancy that. Instead of taking this as a sign that he should take a different path, however, Henry takes a different tactic—cutting the head off of his annoying little conscience once and for all.
MORE: [...] Is it my place to say "good" to the State's sickness? Can I help my King by giving him lies when he asks for truth? (2.724)
We don't know why, but we feel like More would make a pretty killer rapper. Dude's got bars. Career advice aside, this quote finds our hero once again tearing the King's argument to pieces by highlighting the hypocrisy of the legal case levied against him.
CROMWELL: pushes the table off, takes a small black mask from basket and puts it on COMMON MAN. The COMMON MAN thus becomes the traditional Headsman. (2.786)
We find it interesting that Common Man—the character that fills all of the lower-class/extra parts in the play—is given the sole responsibility of executing the great Sir Thomas More. Why doesn't Cromwell do it himself? As we've learned well over the course of the play, however, Cromwell will do anything to take his enemies down—as long as he stays in the shadows. And that, unfortunately, also makes all the common people complicit in the shady goings on we see in the play.