Walpole on Pitt on Shakespeare

Horace Walpole’s Memoirs of George II provides a detailed, if biased and not always accurate, view of politics in the 1750s. In his description of the debates in parliament on the treaties preparatory to the Seven Years’ War, Walpole records William Pitt as saying that he “would quote poetry, for truth in verse was as good as if delivered in the dullest prose—

Corruption’s gilded hand

May put by justice.” (Vol ii, 111)

In the text, this quote is glossed as being from Measure for Measure. Presumably, this reference is due to Walpole’s editorializing, rather than coming directly from Pitt (the quote, but not the reference, is in Thackeray’s History of the Right Hon. William Pitt). The Yale Edition of the Memoirs adds a footnote that, “No lines like these occur in Measure for Measure, nor in any other work by Shakespeare”.

While the quotation is abbreviated and somewhat mangled, and does not come from Measure for Measure, it did start life as Shakespeare, and in context is a fairly powerful indictment of the treaties’ authors.

The source is Claudius’ soliloquy in Act 3, Scene 3 of Hamlet. The standard text reads:

In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but ’tis not so above;

What Pitt actually said can not be determined at this distance, but at least he can be absolved of manufacturing fictitious Shakespeare quotes.

References

Walpole, H. (1985). Memoirs of George II, 3 vols, John Brooke, ed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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