Shakespeare, Johnson, and Wolsey: A Community of Mind

Maurice J. O'Sullivan


In a letter to Samuel Johnson on 28 February 1778, Boswell, clearly trying to make the last point in an argument he had lost months before, concludes with a pair of allusions:

. . . I never differed from you in politicks but upon two points, - the Middlesex Election, and the Taxation of the Americans by the British Houses ofRepresentatives. There is a charm in the word Parliament, so I avoid it. As I am a steady and a warm Tory, I regret that the King does not see it to be better for him to receive constitutional supplies from his American subjects by the voice of their own assemblies, where his Royal Person is represented, than through the medium of his British subjects. I am persuaded that the power of the Crown, which I wish to increase, would be greater when in contact with all its dominions, than if "the rays of regal bounty" were to "shine" upon America through that dense and troubled body, a modern British Parliament. But, enough of this subject; for your angry voice at Ashboume upon it, still sounds aweful "in my mind's ears".

With characteristically pugnacious ingratiation, at the end of his argument Boswell combines phrases from Johnson's discussion of Cardinal Wolsey in The Vanity of Human Wishes with a misquotation from Hamlet. Although juxtaposing the Vanity and Shakespeare may strike us as an obvious psychological ploy, an eighteenth-century audience would have regarded the pairing of Wolsey and Shakespeare as traditional.

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