Preamble - ‘This far-famed skull’: Exhumation and the autopsy of talent

Hughes, William (2022) Preamble - ‘This far-famed skull’: Exhumation and the autopsy of talent. In: The dome of thought. Manchester University Press (MUP). ISBN 9781526143730

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The chapter opens by contemplating the Victorian debate as to whether Shakespeare’s grave should be opened in order to ascertain not merely the presence of his body but also the conformation of his skull. The significance of that skull is outlined with reference to Wilkie Collins’s novella Mr Wray’s Cash-Box, which emphasises the role that the bust of the dramatist in the parish church of Stratford-on-Avon plays in the myth of Shakespeare’s genius. Other portraits of the Bard are then highlighted as the focus of phrenological speculation, and the connections between physiognomy, phrenology and genius are made further with reference to the actual exhumation of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, during which an authorised cast of his skull was taken specifically for phrenological analysis. Having established the presence of phrenology in a popular culture that proceeds far beyond medicine, the remainder of the chapter outlines the basic tenets of the pseudoscience, identifies the central protagonists of its early years in Britain and describes the chapters which follow.

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