Shakespeare's wife

Most of you will know Ann Hathaway, whether it be from a biography of Shakespeare, from education, popular literature or the internet. The image most people have of her is based on a few facts. When they married, for example, William was eighteen while Ann was twenty-six and several months pregnant. In his will, William left Ann his second-best bed. In the words of Germaine Greer, she “left a wife-shaped void in the biography of William Shakespeare.”

Shakespeare’s Wife convincingly shows how biographers have filled this void with their own ideas of what Shakespeare’s wife would have been like. In the popular imagination, she or her parents and friends forced the young Shakespeare to marry her after a roll in the hay at Shottery. A few years later, Shakespeare escaped to London and led a wild life among the brothels in Southwark. Here, for example, is a quotation from the page on Ann’s life on the website of Michael Wood’s In Search of Shakespeare:

At 26, Anne knew the way of the world while William was still a troubled youth, unsure of his path and coping with the collapse of his father’s businesses and the uncertainty of the times. After William turned 21, there would be no more children for Anne and him. There would instead be long absences as William later toured the country and set up home amongst the theatrical community in London. There would be extramarital affairs and head-turning passions for the poet, and he would encounter much more of the world than Anne in rural Warwickshire ever could.

The great thing about Germaine Greer’s biography of Ann Hathaway is that she challenges the representations of Ann that are commonly taken for granted, even (or perhaps especially) among academics. In a podcast she says that it was her reading of Stephen Greenblatt’s biography Will in the World that made her want to write this book, but her biography includes revealing quotations from many other works besides Greenblatt’s.

Her approach to the wife-shaped void is three-pronged: she has done research in the archives and church records in Stratford and surrounding villages, and has retrieved archival facts about the lives of Ann and Shakespeare. In addition, she bases herself on a wealth of historical material that she began to collect when she was writing her PhD thesis. With this information on marriage, the work of a housewife, home industry, birth and medicine in early modern England, she paints us the world of Ann Hathaway. And thirdly, she uses this information and her own feminist perspective to replace the traditional misogynist portrayal of Ann with a friendlier portrait. As the book puts it: “The evidence that is always construed to Ann Hathaway’s disadvantage is capable of other, more fruitful interpretations, especially within the context of recent historiography” (9).

Shakespeare’s Wife takes a careful look at many of the presumptions about Ann, and counters them with her own views. In the case of Shakespeare’s marriage, for example, Anthony Holden wrote in his biography that:

The distinct impression given by the bare documentation of these subsequent events is that these two worthies [Sandells and Richardson, who obtained the license for the marriage] strong-armed young William over to the consistory court at Worcester, some twenty miles from Stratford, before he could flee his obligations. [Holden, Shakespeare, p. 65, qtd. in Greer, p. 75.]

Greer traces the idea that Shakespeare was married against his will through a range of biographies, and then firmly challenges this view of the marriage. She shows that twenty-six was not an unusual age to get married at for a woman in Shakespeare’s England. Pregnancy before marriage was not uncommon either, the records show, and it may have been a way for the couple themselves, rather than the bride’s parents, to force a marriage: “It may have been opposition to their marriage that persuaded the young people to preempt the ceremony, and for the issue by chancing a pregnancy, as others had done before them, and were to do after them” (76). In this way, she pulls the rug from under many ideas about Ann Hathaway. The book then offers us new images of Ann, which are in many cases equally plausible.

What surprised me a little, is that Greer is not as open to other re-readings of Shakespeare’s life. Where she revises the life of Shakespeare’s wife from a feminist perspective, searching the archives and contextual evidence to create a new and refreshing view, other critics have tried to do the same with Shakespeare’s status as the national poet of a Protestant England. These critics cannot count on Greer’s sympathy, however: she writes off their efforts to see Shakespeare as a Catholic as “modish brouhaha” (29).

A delicate point in any biography of Shakespeare is the way in which the biographer uses the plays in his view of Shakespeare. Can you base a portrait of the man on his works, and can you draw parallels between the plays and his life? Greer does occasionally refer to Shakespeare’s works, and her use of the plays as evidence is usually intelligent and subtle. She refers to Cesario’s wooing of Olivia when she imagines Shakespeare’s early moments with Ann — but she does not do so to suggest that this is how things went:

There is no good reason to suppose that William wooed Ann after Cesario’s fashion; the most we can conclude from the evidence of Twelfth Night is that the idea of a youth seducing a woman in mourning didn’t paralyse [Shakespeare] with horror or drown him in bitter reflection.

Occasionally, however, she uses the plays in less subtle ways. One such occasion is the chapter on Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden. The chapter makes for awkward reading in a book that sets out to rescue a wife from misogynist presumptions. Greer writes that “as her father’s favourite, with a succession of older sisters to indulge her, she was probably spoiled rotten” (27). Therefore, in her marriage with John Shakespeare, she “may have been something of a social climber, goading her husband to seek gentility” (32). In order to support this view, Greer turns to Shakespeare’s plays, and finds that mothers are either absent or “anything but motherly,” at best “ineffectual” and at worst “depraved.”

In all, Shakespeare’s Wife is a great read, not only because of the possible life of Ann Hathaway that is conjured up in its chapters, but also because of Germaine Greer’s refreshing feminist perspective and her energetic, full-frontal approach to earlier biographies.

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2 thoughts on “Shakespeare's wife

  1. Great review!
    Greer also does the best Introduction to Shakespeare I know – In the Oxford ‘Short Introduction’ series.
    I’m not sure about the Mother chapter – I suspect Greer is likely to be closer than any of the other commentators so far: Just a feeling though.
    Overall it was a sheer sense of intelligent comment that sold me on this book.

  2. Pingback: Carnivalesque XXXVI « Mercurius Politicus

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