The Sea and Dry Land
In his Preface to the play, Bolt informs the reader his main metaphors are the sea and dry land, to suggest the supernatural order vs. the human order. The sea is formless, vast, and unpredictable. The land is security, home, order, what is known. Thomas More paradoxically clings to the safety of law and land but finds himself swept by his religious faith out to sea. Bolt did not want a purely naturalistic play, he says, and the metaphors are a way to add scope and philosophic depth, as in a poem.
Thomas More is a home-loving man with his house and family in Chelsea and their well-ordered ways. In addition, he is a lawyer who believes in the law as the safeguard of the citizens: “The law is a causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely” (Act Two, p. 153). At his trial, More says to the Court which has condemned him through a perjury, “God help the people whose Statesmen walk your road” (Act Two, p. 157). The government should create and safeguard well-kept roads for the people. There should be landmarks, agreement about the best way to go and how to get there. This is what makes a civilization, and More fervently believes in and lives according to the letter of the law. He believes himself safe, because he knows the law so well that he is sure his silence cannot be interpreted as treason.
The Common Man, who provides narration and commentary, remarks in an early scene, “The great thing’s not to get out of your depth” (Act One, p. 43). He himself is the example of this advice, for he always has his feet on the ground. In this scene he is Matthew the Steward who takes bribes from Chapuys and Rich, giving them something they believe to be significant information about More, but he is just playing them, and says it will be a rare day when he “can’t touch the bottom” (Act One, p. 43). The Common Man is the only one who does not get swept away out to sea by the events of the day. The Steward does refer, however, to More’s being “afraid of drowning” (Act One, p. 43).
Politicians are compared to boats on the ocean. Cromwell says of More, “There’s a man who raises the gale and won’t come out of the harbor” (Act Two, p. 119). He has raised a storm of controversy but tries to remain safe. More predicts that when Wolsey falls, “the splash would swamp a few small boats like ours” (Act One, p. 35). When King Henry visits More at Chelsea he pilots a new warship down the Thames, The Great Harry, literally exemplifying a threatening ship of state bearing down on the little domestic garden.
Metaphors of the Self
Related to the water imagery for the supernatural order are images for the conscience or self, a person’s integrity. “As a water spaniel is to water, so is a man to his own self” (Act Two, p. 123). A water spaniel is attracted to the water; it is his element, just as a man’s self or soul is the element he must swim in. More explains to his daughter that when a man takes an oath, “he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water” (Act Two, p. 140). If he opens his fingers then, breaking the oath, he has lost his self. When Norfolk appeals to their friendship to get More to change his mind, More says, “only God is love right through, Howard, and that’s my self” (Act Two, p.122). More identifies his essential nature with the mysterious ways of the sea, the supernatural forces, though he tries to cling to the land as long as he can.
To bring out the contrast of More’s lofty ideal of conscience and the base corruption he has to deal with, Bolt uses animal metaphors to characterize the power struggle going on in England. Henry’s voracious power is foreshadowed by the story Norfolk tells to the Mores at the beginning of the play about the falcon that stoops five hundred feet to kill a heron. The stoop was “Like an Act of God” (Act One, p. 11), “a royal stoop,” though the heron was “clever” (p. 11). The falcon is Henry VIII and the heron is Thomas More. Henry’s sudden and deadly acts are well symbolized by the falcon who can attack so fast, it appears to be an act of God. Henry does see himself as having the divine right of kings and executes all his actions with the authority of God, such as defying the Pope and setting up his own church.
In a later scene in Act Two, Cromwell says that More is a “slippery fish,” and they need a “net with a finer mesh” to catch him (p. 103). During the last scene with his family, More calls his wife Alice “a lion” for her courage in standing by him to the bitter end (Act Two, p. 145). Henry calls his followers like Cromwell “jackals,” animals who eat the leftovers, while Henry calls himself a “lion” that provides the meat (Act One, p. 55). When More is imprisoned, and The Common Man is cast in the role of the jailer, he pleads for his lack of morality by saying “Better a live rat than a dead lion” (Act Two, p. 127). This makes the Common Man the rat and More the lion or noble one, though he dies for it. The differing use of the lion symbolism points out the subjectivity of values. Traditionally, leaders like to be compared to the lion, king of beasts, but rats are more plentiful, and for the Common Man, the quantity of life rather than the quality of it is the point.
The Sea and Dry Land