The play is in two acts but without scene divisions. This analysis divides the acts into scenes, according to the stage directions.
Act One, Scene One: Summary
The Common Man is both narrator and character, carting with him a basket full of costumes that he puts on to become different people in the play. The Common Man presents a short prologue but does not feel qualified to be speaking of kings and royalty. With the spotlight on him, he complains as he takes out the costume of Matthew, the Steward of Sir Thomas More, and as he puts on the coat, the lights come up and he begins setting the table with goblets. Matthew sets the table and explains to the audience that the sixteenth century is the century of the Common Man, as are all the other centuries. He sneaks some of the wine, then introduces Sir Thomas More.
Sir Thomas asks if the wine was good, and the steward pretends innocence. Richard Rich enters arguing, “every man has his price” (4). More disagrees with him. Rich says that people can be bought with money, pleasure, or suffering. More is intrigued by the last item until Rich explains that he means, you torture someone and then offer an escape. More accuses him of reading Machiavelli, and Rich tells him that Master Cromwell suggested he read Machiavelli to become successful. Rich thinks Cromwell will help him find a place.
More encourages Rich to go back to Cambridge and become a teacher so he will not be tempted into politics and court life. Rich complains that he has been waiting on wealthy men for seven months trying to find a place. More tells him he should take the post from the Dean of St. Paul’s as a teacher because in public life one is tempted with bribes. He shows Rich a silver cup that a woman sent him to sway his decision on a court case. He gives it to Rich to sell to buy some new clothes. More explains to Rich that the only reason he is in public office is that it was forced on him.
The Duke of Norfolk, the Earl Marshall of England, is announced by the Steward. Norfolk calls for Alice, and the Steward explains to the audience that she is Sir Thomas’s wife. Alice and Norfolk argue as Alice comes down the stairs, about whether a falcon could swoop down on its prey from a cloud. Lady Margaret, More’s daughter, also enters. Alice turns to her husband to ask if it is possible for a hawk to stoop from a cloud. More says it doesn’t seem likely. Norfolk continues talking to Margaret (Meg) about this hunting story, explaining the hawk tried to kill a heron. Norfolk tries to get Alice to ride to show her what a hawk can do, and Alice bets him thirty shillings it can’t stoop from a cloud. More puts his foot down and says she has lost her money but can’t ride out with huntsmen. Richard quotes Aristotle on clouds, and More teases that he is really more interested in Machiavelli. Margaret admits she has read him. Norfolk tells her she will not be able to find a husband if she is educated. More and Meg glance at each other.
Norfolk informs them that Cromwell is now the Cardinal’s secretary, and they discuss how Cromwell is from the lower class, but so is the Cardinal. Rich had not heard this before, and More says now he can get help from Cromwell instead of from him. The Steward enters with a summons for More from Cromwell who wants to see him now on the King’s business. Alice guesses it is about the Queen’s business. More sends Margaret and Alice to bed after they pray together, and then he sends Rich with Norfolk, hinting to Norfolk that Rich needs a job. Rich runs back to get the goblet.
The Steward speaks to the audience, predicting that Rich will amount to nothing and that his master, Sir Thomas More, is too generous, because someday someone will ask him for something he won’t want to give away.
Act One, Scene one: Commentary
The Common Man is a narrator and character, a common denominator against which to measure the other characters. He is practical and motivated for his own welfare. In the play he will assume many guises while the high drama of the main characters is played against his continuous canvas, for the Common Man goes on, the mainstay of every century. The Common Man is a steward, a boatman, an innkeeper, a jailor, an executioner. He gets his employment as he can and does what he must to keep it. He is shrewd and makes accurate assessments of people but only from a practical point of view. He is the opposite of someone like Sir Thomas More, who has high ideals, as is shown in his advice to Richard Rich to stay out of politics. More implies that he would like a more quiet and private life himself, but he had been pressed into service for his country to become a judge in the Court of Requests, a court for the poor. He is not ambitious for public life and recognition the way Richard Rich is.
Richard Rich has a choice that More lays out for him. He could get a humble post as a teacher and stay out of the dangerous game of politics, or he can throw himself into court life and take his chances. More warns him about bribery, for instance. Rich is trying to get More to employ him but hints that he has been also hanging around Thomas Cromwell, who is known to be a political climber and who suggested that Rich read Machiavelli if he wants to get ahead.
The art of statesmanship was much discussed in the sixteenth century, with Sir Thomas More himself being one of the influential writers and philosophical thinkers in Europe; his book Utopia discusses an ideal state. Nicolo Machiavelli, on the other hand, (1469-1527) in The Prince gives a practical approach to politics, with expediency as the guideline for governments rather than morality. In the first scene then, the larger conflict is defined. What should guide someone in life? Ethics or expediency? The Common Man comments on Sir Thomas that he is too generous to be successful, by living his ideals. More shows Rich a silver cup that had been sent to him as a bribe, and because he is honest, he gives it away. Rich says he will use it to buy a richer robe so he can look successful. Attention is called to the goblet at the end of the scene, a foreshadowing that it will become an important detail. More tries to dissociate himself from corruption, but can he?
All the male characters are either antagonists or foils for Sir Thomas More. More’s wife and daughter are like he is, sincerely religious, straightforward, and domestic. They represent a tight-knit family unit. Their friend, Norfolk, is one of the stable old aristocrats of England. He is not intellectual like More and Rich, illustrated by his talk of hunting. He is a friend of the family and jokes around familiarly with Alice and Meg. Norfolk is the normal good man whose goodness is not strong enough to stand up to pressure. The play asks the question that Rich brings up in the beginning: does everyone have a price?