Okay, picture this: you're in a theater and the stage is completely dark, save one spotlight shining down on a dude named Common Man, who's sitting on a big old basket. Don't worry—it doesn't make sense to us yet, either.
Common Man rants about how a schmo like him shouldn't be giving a prologue for a play "made up of Kings and Cardinals" (1.2).
So Common Man reaches into his basket and pulls out a costume—the garb of "Matthew [...] the Household Steward of Sir Thomas More" (1.5). What the what?
Then, just like magic, the real Sir Thomas More appears at the top of the stairs asking Matthew to for some wine. Clever intro, right?
More is followed by one Richard Rich. They're having a heated debate: Rich seems to be attempting (and failing) to bribe More.
Apparently Rich has been trying to get a job with the local Cardinal, even dropping More's name in his latest, failed attempt. More is a pretty big deal 'round these parts, bee-tee-dubs.
More suggests that Rich should become a teacher instead of a politician so he won't be "tempted" (1.48). He illustrates this by showing Rich a fancy silver cup that he was given as a bribe in a court case. Basically, dude gets bribed a lot.
More then gives the cup to Rich—he's always sure to give away bribes to keep his hands clean, legally speaking. Rich takes it.
Suddenly, the Duke of Norfolk enters from the top of stairs, ranting and raving. What a charmer. Norfolk is the Earl Marshal of England, which means that he is a Very Important Guy who does Very Important Stuff.
Norfolk's followed by Alice, More's wife, and their daughter Margaret. Norfolk is excitedly telling them that he saw a falcon attacking its prey from the clouds, which the ladies believe to be impossible. More takes Big Daddy Norfolk's side.
After a brief debate over Machiavelli (yup—weirdos) the conversation grinds to a screeching halt when Rich mentions someone named Cromwell. Although Cromwell and Rich are buddies, everyone else seems to hate him.
Norfolk shocks the group further by revealing that Cromwell has become the Cardinal's secretary. The group reacts with so much horror that they might as well be watching TheHuman Centipede.
Common Man (acting as Matthew, the steward) presents More with a note: he's being summoned by the Cardinal. Whoa, that's creepy. How did the Cardinal know they were talking about him? Did the NSA exist in the 16th Century?
After saying his goodbyes, squeezing in a quick prayer, and convincing Norfolk to hire Rich, More scuttles off to visit the Cardinal. Busy dude, this one.
Once everyone's gone, Common Man puts all of the props in his basket, sets "papers, pen and ink, and candles on the table" and scurries offstage (1.177).
Cardinal Wolsey enters the scene and sits down at the desk. More follows soon after.
More and Wolsey chat about the minutiae of 16th-century Catholic bureaucracy (riveting, right?) before finally getting to the topic at hand: the King.
Here's the deal: King Henry VIII is married to a lady named Catherine who can't produce a male heir. Because of this, the King wants to divorce her and marry someone else. This, of course, was strictly verboten in the Catholic church at the time, but it's doubly true in this case, because the King had already specially petitioned the Pope in order to marry Catherine in the first place (but more on that later). Phew.
Although he's not explicit about it, More clearly opposes this divorce. For his part, Wolsey argues that Henry's lack of an heir could cause untold political upheaval in England.
This strange interaction ends, and More leaves the stage, with Wolsey following soon after. Once they're gone, Common Man creeps back out and puts on a boatman's hat.
That's when More returns, beckoning for a boat. Before he can make a deal with Common Boatman, however, the dastardly Cromwell emerges like a total creeper. Apparently he's been standing behind an arch for, like, three days, just waiting for an opportunity like this.
Clearly annoyed, More runs intellectual and linguistic circles around Cromwell, nailing some top-notch, A+ innuendo. Fine work, good sir.
Just as More is finally about to board the boat, two more figures emerge: Signor Chapuys and his assistant. Chapuys is the Spanish ambassador to England—Spain's King Charles is the brother of the soon-to-be-divorced Queen Catherine of England. In other words, this is a sticky situation.
Chapuys is investigating whether More opposes the divorce, but he scurries off before our guy gives a definitive answer. Well, at least More can finally head home. Sheesh.
After dropping More off, the Boatman complains about boating regulations before reaching his own home. Then, as usual, he changes into Matthew's costume just as More enters the scene.
Matthew reveals something that upsets More greatly: someone named "Master Roper" is here (1.306). Oh, man, who's this guy? A political titan? An intellectual heavyweight? A Papal assassin?
Nope—Roper's just some dude who wants to get with More's daughter, Margaret. Oh, yeah, and he wants to marry her, too.
More scoffs at this idea not merely because William Roper is a "heretic" (a.k.a. a Protestant), but because he is incredibly fickle in his beliefs (1.320).
After shooing Roper, More talks vaguely with Margaret about his chat with the Cardinal. Margaret seems very nervous—almost frightened.
Alice enters. She tells More that Norfolk was publicly supporting him to become the new British Chancellor (another bigwig position) while he was away. More has no interest in this gig.
The trio exits the stage, and it goes dark once again, except for a spotlight in the center. Suddenly, we see a "red robe and the Cardinal's hat" tossed into the light (1.380)—this is definitely symbolic, y'all.
Common Man appears, tosses these objects into his basket, and starts reading from a book. He explains that Wolsey died in 1530 after being arrested for High Treason. And guess what? His death directly leads to Sir Thomas More becoming Chancellor.
The scene then shifts to Hampton Court, a famous palace of King Henry VIII. Cromwell and Rich are walking in opposite directions when they stumble across each other.
Cromwell throws some shade Rich's way for having a relatively low position with Norfolk. For his part, Cromwell has started working for the King since Wolsey's death. Talk about movin' on up.
Cromwell implies that he could get Rich a better position, but before he can talk about it in detail, he's interrupted by the entrance of Chapuys.
Chapuys and Cromwell have a predictably awkward interaction, during which Cromwell refuses to say what exactly he does for the King. They talk trash and Cromwell brags about the King's upcoming publicity tour on the ship Great Harry—one of his stops will be More's crib.
Just as they're discussing More, his steward Matthew appears. Weird. Chapuys scuttles off to take care of business, but Cromwell hangs to the side of the room and beckons the steward over.
The steward explains that More hasn't discussed the divorce with anyone. Not a peep. Although Cromwell isn't entirely satisfied with this answer, he gives Matthew some cash and departs.
As if on cue, Chapuys emerges and performs his own little interrogation of the steward. Here, the steward just emphasizes that More is a good Catholic before acquiring his fee.
The scene shifts to More's house, where Alice, Margaret, and Norfolk are desperately trying to locate Tommy Boy. The steward enters a few moments later, but he has no idea, either.
Luckily, More makes his big entrance, and all is right in the world. Well, kind of all right—they're making a big fuss because the King is here for a surprise visit. ZOMG.
That's when the group notices More's rather shabby clothing. They leap into action and basically strap him down in order to get him into the traditional robes of his office.
It's right in the nick of time, too—the King suddenly emerges with great fanfare (literally, in this case). Everyone does the whole bow and pay respect deal before Henry starts talking like they're casual friends at a dinner party.
Henry even tries to show off his Latin skills to Margaret, though she impressively kicks his royal behind (not that it's a competition). He also threatens to wrestle Norfolk (spoiler alert: this would not go well for the King) and brags about his dancing skills, which kind of makes him look like a dummy.
With that, Alice goes off to cook dinner while More and Henry sit down and chat. Henry is quite affectionate with More, calling him his "friend" and wondering why he doesn't visit More's home more often (1.540).
Suddenly, Henry bursts into anger, claiming that Wolsey had failed him by being unable to procure his divorce. He goes even further, saying that his marriage with Catherine was illegitimate in the first place because she was his brother's widow (which is a big no-no, according to the Old Testament). In fact, he takes the Pope's initial approval of the marriage as evidence of the Catholic Church's corruption.
Although More is clearly opposed to this argument, he refuses to say it flat out. Still, the King seems obsessed with getting our humble hero to take his side.
Suddenly, Henry looks at the time—it's eight o'clock, which means that he has to leave (without dinner, much to Alice's dismay). After Henry leaves, More explains that "Lady Anne likes to dance" at eight o'clock (Anne Boleyn is Henry's mistress and—spoiler—future wife) (1.508).
Alice is clearly nervous that More screwed things up with the King. Before they can delve too deep into the argument, however, Roper bursts into the room with his usual lack of grace.
Roper reveals that he's been offered a seat in Parliament, but he isn't sure if he wants to take it—since his last conversation with More, he's decided to become a Catholic again. So many lulz.
Once again, the conversation is interrupted—this time by Matthew, who loudly announces Richard Rich's arrival.
Rich acts flustered and nervous, which makes the whole group suspicious. He tells More that Cromwell has been asking a lot of questions and reveals that Matthew was leaking him info.
More is stone-faced—he already knows that Matthew leaks info, so he doesn't understand what Rich wants. Rich doesn't seem to know what he's doing, either, though he finally manages to beg More for a job. Which fails. Embarrassingly.
Rich departs in a fluster. Roper wants More to arrest him, but our boy refuses—it is his principled belief that to subvert the law to reach your goals is, basically, a road to hell in a hand basket.
Once everyone clears the scene, Common Man returns and puts on the garb of a bar owner.
As soon as he does, he's accosted by Cromwell, who's looking for a place to do some shady business. And guess who's with him—our boy Richie Rich.
After some nonsense, Cromwell offers Rich the position of "Collector of Revenue for York District" in exchange for information about More (1.657). Rich agrees.
Cromwell asks Rich questions about the fancy cup/bribe that More gave him: what court case it was for, where Rich sold it, etc., etc. After dropping the deets, Rich guiltily cries that Cromwell will never be able to take More down.
Naturally, Cromwell responds to this by sticking Rich's hand into a flame, which is a totally normal way for a person to end a conversation. Certainly not a sign of sadism and psychopathy. Totally not.