The Common Man shows us a pub called “The Loyal Subject” and he puts on the costume of an innkeeper or publican. As he places chairs and a table, he comments on Sir Thomas More that it takes a lot of education to get a man as deep as he is. Someone common cannot be expected to understand him. Cromwell enters with a bottle, and the publican says this is a private room. Cromwell looks around to see the dark corners. Rich enters. Cromwell says he is drunk with success; Sir Thomas Paget is retiring, and now Cromwell will be Secretary of the Council. Cromwell questions Rich on whether he would never repeat or report things told to him in confidence. Rich says he does believe he would never do that. Then he admits it would depend on what he was offered. Cromwell approves and offers him the post of Collector of Revenues for York Diocese. Rich wonders what he has to do for it. Cromwell tells him there are no rules; it’s “a matter of convenience” (73). They must make things convenient for Henry. Rich looks depressed and explains, “I’ve lost my innocence” (74). Cromwell tells him he lost it long ago, but he is just noticing. Rich takes some wine, and they discuss how Sir Thomas More really is an innocent man.
Cromwell explains that to an innocent man like Sir Thomas, the Pope is the only one who can give a divorce, even though the Pope is a corrupt man. Then he asks Rich how much he got for the goblet More gave him. He says fifty shillings. Cromwell says it was a bribe and wants Rich to show him the shop so they can get the evidence. Rich agrees but asks Cromwell what he is going to do with this evidence. Cromwell says that upright men have to learn how to get out of the way, and if not, they are only fit for heaven. Rich suddenly defends More, saying he won’t frighten so easily because he really is innocent. Cromwell says perhaps he doesn’t know how to be frightened because he hasn’t put his hand in the candle, and with that he grabs Rich’s hand and burns it in the candle until Rich screams and moves away. Rich accuses him in horror: “You enjoyed that!” (77)
Act One, Scene Eight: Commentary
The name of the pub, “The Loyal Subject,” is satirical. All could claim to be loyal subjects, but what is a loyal subject, one who does what the king wants and commands, or someone like More, who wants to uphold justice? The comedy in the beginning of the scene in which the publican cannot understand what Cromwell means, shows how humans only understand what they themselves know. They cannot put themselves in the place of another. The publican does not have Cromwell’s political assessment of the privacy of the room. Cromwell doesn’t want “too many little dark corners” (69) meaning he doesn’t want to be spied on. The publican says innocently that the room has only four corners. He says, “I don’t understand you” (70), and Cromwell thinks the publican is being crafty, pretending to be dumb, calling him, “The master statesman of us all” (70). This demonstrates the paranoid thinking of someone like Cromwell who does not believe someone else could be straightforward.
This scene indirectly shows the turn in More’s fate, as lesser men bargain for his future. It is frightening because neither Sir Thomas nor Henry, the protagonist and antagonist of the action, are present. It is all decided off stage, so to speak, by underlings, by men who do favors for other men, all down a long chain of command. It is like a spider’s web, and More is getting set up. He has been confident of remaining in the right, and in the light, not just because he is a saint or trusting in God, but because he has trusted in the law and his own ability to outwit the obvious schemes of others. He has thought that innocence and silence were enough. Cromwell wants to show him it is not. From now on More’s downfall will be handled through a bureaucracy, not by Henry himself. We assume he is ultimately giving the orders, or is responsible for them.
Cromwell announces “convenience” or expediency as the sole motivation for political action. First, it is according to the King’s convenience, and then, on down the line, according to the convenience of each person, which direction he will take. It is an unpleasant scene in which we watch a weak man, Rich, get corrupted by an evil man who is enjoying not only his own power, but also watching someone give up his conscience. When Rich tries to explain that More is motivated differently, Cromwell puts Rich’s hand in the fire to bring home the principle Rich himself had announced in the first scene, that every man has his price. For some, the price is suffering; that is, torture until the person agrees. The sign that neither Rich nor Cromwell can comprehend a man like More is in More’s earlier response to Rich’s idea that a man could be tempted towards suffering. In other words, Thomas More’s measurement of reality, his temptations, are completely different than other men’s. The question left at the end of the scene is, will Cromwell be able to frighten More into line with Henry’s desire? It is clear he will stop at nothing and seems to be confident enough in knowing Henry’s mind that he can make such threats. Cromwell is more frightening than Wolsey. Wolsey was ambitious but seems to have had some sense of England, of ruling for a purpose. Cromwell only seems motivated by power and cruelty. In all the scenes the Common Man proves Cromwell’s principle of convenience, because he is on the bottom rung of the ladder of power, and in order to survive, as a servant, publican, boatman, he must also look to convenience rather than conscience. The Common Man observes and says some witty things about the human condition, but he does not comprehend Sir Thomas More either, and he will end up contributing to his downfall by having to pay attention to the principle of “convenience.”