Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer

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Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer

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Category: Biography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Very successful as a learned and spirited account of Early Modern provincial life, but ultimately rather pointless as a gloss to life of Ann Shakespeare, it's well written, well researched and worth reading by those interested in social history. Those expecting biographical revelations will be disappointed.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 416 Date: September 2007
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747591702

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Until I read this book, I had not been aware of the extent of the cult of Shakespeare, which Greer calls 'Bardolatry', and which naming doesn't prevent her from using the insufferably pretentious moniker for Shakespeare in her own book. But of course it's understandable that the greatest English language writer, and arguably the greatest writer ever will generate not only huge amounts of scholarship relating to his work, but also endless biographical and gossipy speculation about his personal life.

Not an awful lot is known about Shakespeare's life, and even though he was married for most of it, almost nothing is known about his wife. What we know about Ann is what we know of many a middle-class women of her era: Ann Hathaway was a daughter of a farmer, born around 1556, she married William Shakespeare at the age of 26, when 3 months pregnant. He was a minor then and 8 years younger than Ann. They had 3 children, of which 2 daughters survived to adulthood, both married. While William pursued his career in London, Ann stayed in Stratford where her husband seems to have returned a few years before his death. Ann is scarcely mentioned in his work (apart from an early sonnet), and when he died his will hardly mentions Ann: "I gyve unto my wief my second best bed with the furniture" was the only legacy.

Such a skeletal account provided the speculating Bardolators with a lot of opportunity to vilify Ann and construct William's marriage in a light rather unfavourable to his wife.

Shakespeare's Wife aims to rehabilitate Ann and uses the extensive social history material in an attempt to put some individual flesh on the factual bones of her life and to place the Shakespeares' marriage in a wider social context.

Greer's thesis is that all that we know of Ann and her marriage to William has been persistently interpreted with a negative bias, that lack of hard data (which she freely admits) has been used always to Ann's disadvantage which it could have been interpreted in other directions. She freely admits that all the speculations about Ann were houses built of straw, and then attempts to built her own straw house, coming from a different perspective. She counteracts the other biographers' "could have beens" with her own, while scrupulously admitting that we have no information either way.

In some ways, she seems to have succeeded - assuming her social history data are presented honestly, the chief anti-Ann arguments (her age at the time of marriage, the shotgun wedding, the months away while Shakespeare was in London, and in particular the will) seem to lose quite a bit of their weight. Greer attributes the meagreness of the bequest to the earlier marriage settlement for Ann's and William's daughter which made her his sole heir and thus left little room to manoeuvre for other legacies.

Greer does a very through job of showing Ann's family background (in fact, the number of Hathaways and relations, the plethora of wills, births and marriages, can get overwhelming), and the numerous and extensive asides presenting particulars of life in Stratford in the Early Modern period are fascinating. I found particularly the aspects of family and female life discussed very interesting.

From the habit of bedding-before-wedding (a residue of the old custom of marriage being performed in private and the public church ceremony just publicly solemnising it) to ages at marriage to the process of making malt to the workings of the town's Corporation to attitudes to premarital sex (still very lax at the time Will & Ann married, but getting progressively stricter as the years passed and the puritan influence increased) to illegitimacy (unacceptable) to quotes from midwifery books and work choices open to Elizabethan women to the degree of real economic independence they had to wet nurses and gory detail of early forms of syphilitic infection, it's all enlightening and if Shakespeare's Wife was entitled "Scenes from the life of Elizabethan Stratford " it would have been an excellent book. As it is, it is only half-successful and that's because, due to the lack of individual facts about Ann, it's impossible to forget that Greer's vision is only that - a possible alternative to the official version or lack of it.

There is no escape from the fact that we know very little about Ann, and thus she stands in Greer's book as nothing more but an example of a middle class housewife of the period. The efforts to make her distinguishable "herself" largely fail, and the ideas for the part she could have played in Shakespeare's work (including financially and supporting the publication of the First Folio) are just that - ideas, not impossible, but with no particular basis in evidence either.

Yes, Ann might have been wooed by Will rather then the opposite, he might have entered the marriage willingly rather than under duress and they could have maintained cordial relations while he was away in London; she could have been able to read rather than be illiterate, she could have brewed or farmed or she could have supervised cottage industry of haberdashery...all these, however, invite a big 'so what' from me. She could have. Or she could have not.

As a reader not particularly interested in the biographical angle, I didn't mind all of that at all. Greer could have been writing about Ann's neighbour and possibly friend Bess Quiney (in fact, she writes a lot about her) or any other Stratford housewife. She writes well and manages to hold interest amidst the dry bits of data. I strongly feel that those picking up Shakespeare's Wife in order to learn specifically more about, well, Shakespeare's wife, would be disappointed.

Thanks to the publishers for sending this volume to the Bookbag.

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