Charles Matthews's Reviews > Shakespeare's Wife

Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer
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The little we know for certain about the private life of William Shakespeare could fit in a slender file folder: records of birth and marriage and death, a few other documents mostly pertaining to real estate transactions and some legal matters, some evidence of his work with various theatrical companies, a handful of mentions by his contemporaries, and the like. But we have the plays and poems, too, and from that has been spun the vast web of maybes and perhapses that constitutes Shakespeare biography.

We know even less about his wife, Ann (or Anne or even Agnes) Hathaway Shakespeare. We do know that she was born in 1556 and died in 1623 (outliving him by seven years), that they married in 1582, when she was 26 and he was 18, and that their first child, Susanna, was born six months after the wedding. They had two more children, the twins Hamnet and Judith, in 1585. And that’s pretty much it for Ann, except that in his will, Shakespeare left her his “second-best bed.”

But if countless volumes can be got out of the little we know about William’s life, it’s not really surprising that Germaine Greer can get 400 pages out of Ann’s. Greer is best known – at least on this side of the Atlantic – for her 1970 book The Female Eunuch, a key text in the foundation of the women’s movement of the ’70s. British tabloid readers and TV-watchers know Greer as colorful and uninhibited. (The role of the public intellectual in Britain is evidently very different from that of the American equivalent. Greer appeared on a celebrity edition of the British version of “Big Brother.” Try to imagine John Updike on “Survivor.”) But her persona is anything but flamboyant in this new book, which is a sober, fact-laden attempt to figure out what the life of Mrs. Shakespeare must have been like.

This is not to say that Shakespeare’s Wife lacks controversy. Greer’s target is what she sees as the sexism of scholars who assume that Ann was more of an impediment than a helpmeet to Shakespeare. Scholars (mostly male) have conjectured that Shakespeare was trapped in a marriage to a woman he didn’t love. They cite the disparity in ages between William and Ann, the inference that she was pregnant when they wed, their prolonged separation when he went off to London to make it big and apparently left her in Stratford – three days’ journey away – to take care of the kids. And then there’s that dismissive-sounding bequest.

Greer’s chief target is Stephen Greenblatt, whose 2004 Shakespeare biography, Will in the World, was a bestseller. To paint her very different portrait of the Shakespeare marriage, she uses some of Greenblatt’s own history-scouring techniques, digging deep into the minute details of Elizabethan daily life. Maybe Ann wasn’t a conniving hussy who trapped a mere boy into marriage, she proposes. And maybe consummation of the marriage before the wedding ceremony was commonly accepted, maybe they weren’t separated as long or as often as is usually thought, and maybe Shakespeare didn’t leave her much in the will because he didn’t have to – she was already entitled to her share of the estate. She may well have been a capable businesswoman, supporting the family on her own while he was away. And that bed could have had both sentimental and monetary value.

The one thing Greer doesn’t do is rely heavily on the poems and plays for evidence. She does touch lightly on passages in the plays that reinforce evidence she has found elsewhere, and she dismisses the sonnets – with their implications of the poet’s affairs both gay and straight – as mostly conventional, except when she finds evidence of marital affection in them. She doesn’t even expound on marital themes in the plays, such as the jealous husband/innocent wife motif found in tragedy (Othello), comedy (The Merry Wives of Windsor) and romance (A Winter’s Tale).

What she does give us in her account of the life led by women in Elizabethan Stratford-upon-Avon, is sometimes fascinating. And sometimes it’s tedious and tendentious. There’s a long and mostly irrelevant description of what the medical practice of John Hall, the husband of Ann and William’s daughter Susanna, must have been like. And an equally detailed account of the conflict in Stratford over the enclosure of land once held in common, in which Greer suggests Ann and her daughters might have taken part – and then admits “perhaps none of them” did. And there’s a gruesome section on syphilis and its treatment, all in service of the possibility that William might have contracted it in the brothels of London.

The result is a bit of a jumble of a book. There are flashes of insight, and the suggestion that Ann may not have been such a burden to her husband as some have argued is a sensible one. But a barrage of facts about everything from childbirth in Elizabethan times to the making of ale to the price of land doesn’t constitute a full portrait of Shakespeare’s wife, or add very much to our understanding of his art.

In the end, on almost all questions, Greer is content to leave the conclusions up to the reader: “If Ann Shakespeare had both skill and business acumen, she could have become a wealthy woman in her own right. So far we don’t know that she did, but we don’t know that she didn’t either.” That admission, almost an authorial shrug of the shoulders, comes halfway through the book. Which may be as far as some readers get.

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Finished Reading
December 6, 2009 – Shelved

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