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Oct/Nov 2007 Book Reviews

Considering Mrs. Shakespeare

Germaine Greer.
Shakespeare's Wife.

Allen & Unwin. 2007. 406 pp.
ISBN: 978 0 7475 9170 2

Reviewed by Ann Skea


Introduction: considering the poor reputation of wives generally, in particular the wives of literary men, and the traditional disparagement of the wife of the Man of the Millennium.

In this introduction to her "Introduction," Greer spells out for us the theme and nature of her book. Ann Shakespeare is the maligned or disparaged wife in question and Greer intends to rescue her from this sorry state. She takes on all the well-known biographers of Shakespeare and points out where they err, and she offers her own biography of the wife of the Bard. As usual, she is argumentative, challenging and controversial. And as usual, she will infuriate some readers and delight others. But she is tilting at windmills here and given that she provides us with chapter headings in the manner of Cervantes in Don Quixote, she clearly knows this.

In Chapters One and Two, Greer gallops through the genealogies of both Ann and William at such a pace that the reader is left reeling. Parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, births, marriages, name-changes, contracts, deaths and wills fly past but ultimately prove nothing other than that we don't know and probably will never know why Ann (or Agnes) Hathaway (or Gardner) and William Shakespeare married, or what their marriage was like. All Greer proves is that she can speculate as well as or even better than the "bardolaters," in particular the male ones, whose work she frequently quotes. She speculates that Mary Shakespeare, William's mother, married for status and spent her time gossiping and showing off her finery, rather than helping his father in the family business; that a young, lovelorn William wooed Ann with his poems (which, of course, is very likely); and that Ann was blind (although this is probably sarcasm), a milkmaid, or an employee in John Shakespeare's gloving business.

Other chapters contain similar gallops through fragmentary archives concerning Stratford, its history and its citizens. Mostly, these chapters concern people whose lives may have been somewhat similar to that of Ann Shakespeare or who may have had some association with her. They provide support for Greer's claims that, for example, Ann was a respected and influential financially independent townswoman; which is quite possibly true. Often, however, these chapters bog down in details and connections which are just confusing. They offer speculation supported by too many random and often irrelevant details, which is pointless.

When Greer gets down off her high horse and writes about facts related to contemporary custom and society in general, rather than fantasy, she is very good. Chapter Six, for example ("of handfasts, troth-plights and bundling, of rings, gauds and conceits, and what was likely to happen on the big day"), offers a delightful description of Elizabethan marriage practices, beautifully illustrated by apt quotations from Shakespeare's plays. This chapter is a pleasure to read and provides us with a deeper understanding of the plays as well as some idea of the way in which a sixteenth century audience would have understood them.

Another chapter which I thoroughly enjoyed argues that some of Shakespeare's love sonnets may have been written for Ann, not for some mysterious dark lady (or man). Greer quotes freely from the sonnets and argues her case selectively but well. The romantic in me would happily believe that Shakespeare truly loved his wife and missed her during his long absences from Stratford, but nothing can be proved either way.

It is a pity that in her gallant effort to rescue Ann from oblivion, Greer sometimes contradicts herself. In several places she notes that many people made the three day journey between London and Stratford, and she suggests that Will did this between terms, when the theatres were closed, and for family occasions. At other times she writes of him as having been "estranged from his family for more than ten years." She is also inclined to lapse into slang (Mary Shakespeare was "spoiled rotten," John Shakespeare's business had "flat-lined," someone else "gets an earful"), which is a pity given the overall excellence of her writing.

None of this matters, of course. In the end, all biography is speculation. What does matter is Shakespeare's work, not his life or that of his wife.

As Greer writes in the penultimate paragraph of her final chapter, in which she, "the intrepid author," suggests that Ann may have been very much involved in the publication of the First Folio: "All this, in common with most of this book, is heresy, and probably neither truer nor less true than the accepted prejudice."

Exactly!

 

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