Falling, as it inevitably did, on 23 April 1864, the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth coincided with a period of exceptionally intense religious controversy. In 1859 Charles Darwin had finally committed The Origin of Species to print; Essays and Reviews (the contentious collection of seven essays on theological and scientific issues, whose contributors included the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple, Mark Pattison and Benjamin Jowett) appeared in 1860; Bishop Colenso’s The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined, in which the author applied his mathematical skills to the Five Books of Moses with theologically disconcerting results, followed in 1862–3 and in January 1863 Man’s Place in Nature, by T. H. Huxley – the Apostle of Unbelief, who coined the word ‘agnostic’ – was published. The two areas of dispute were firstly the implication of scientific discoveries of evolution for religion and secondly revisionist biblical scholarship, originating in Germany, but with its exponents in Britain. Shakespeare was pertinent to both these issues. Already established as England’s greatest dramatist, his tercentenary gave rise to increasingly expansive claims on his behalf by his fellow-countrymen, thereby framing anew the question of how genius occurred. Could traditional religious doctrine on the subject withstand the challenge of new evolutionary ideas?
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