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Shakespeare's Wife Hardcover – April 8, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
SignatureReviewed by Marilyn French
Given the hysterical responses of some British critics to Germaine Greer's new book about Ann Hathaway, one expects wild-eyed surmises about that woman's life. Instead, Greer offers a richly textured account of the lives of ordinary women in Stratford and similar towns in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. We know very little about Shakespeare's life, and even less about his wife's, but this has not deterred generations of critics from inventing a narrative for them. In general, they aver that Ann, being eight years older than Shakespeare, was an unattractive woman who seduced and trapped him in an unwanted marriage, from which he escaped as soon as possible. His abandonment of his wife and three children supposedly without support is generally regarded as their just desserts, as is his will, leaving her with nothing but his second-best bed. Greer questions these critical judgments, but her real interest lies in tracing how the Shakespeare family could have survived. She meticulously traces the members of the Shakespeare and Hathaway families, their acquaintances, relatives of their acquaintances and notable people in Stratford. She reminds us of facts other critics have ignored: for instance, in the late 15th century, almost half the children died in their early years, often from malnutrition. Ann Shakespeare's children survived-the two girls to adulthood, and the boy, Hamnet, until 11-so she must have been able to feed them. Greer shows that no one else would have been likely to step in to help Ann feed her family: she would have had to do it herself. Given a list of Ann's possessions at one point in her life, Greer theorizes she was a maltster: many women made decent livings by making ale. Greer's details of how ordinary people lived in this period are extremely interesting-the contents of their houses, the value of their clothes, the number of rooms they occupied. These facts are also quite moving because death was omnipresent. Her theory about Shakespeare's relation with his wife is original and persuasive: she imagines there was real love between them, at least at some point. She cites the desire depicted in "Venus and Adonis" (about an older woman and a younger man) and suggests that some of the sonnets were written to Ann. She offers theories and not, she is careful to state, a definitive narrative. The theory that seems most to have inflamed British critics is the idea that Ann may have paid to have Shakespeare's plays printed after his death. Since many wives do publish their husbands' work after their death, I'm not sure why this is considered so heretical, but Greer knew it would be. (Apr. 8)
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In 1979, noted feminist Greer wrote The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work, which helped save several women artists from obscurity. Now she turns her attention to another shadowy figure, Ann Hathaway. Greer wants to rescue Hathaway from the frantic fantasising of the bardolators, who would have us believe that Shakespeare left Stratford for London in order to escape an unhappy marriage. Maybe, and since the cupboard is so bare of facts, Greer can do no more than speculate herself. But her speculation is based on careful sifting through every shard of contextual evidence—archives, records, registers, and literary works—not just as it relates to the Shakespeares and the Hathaways but also as it relates to their place and time. What we get is a portrait of life in Stratford circa 1600 on almost every level and in every aspect—the practice of medicine, the brewing of ale, birth, marriage, and burial. Although Ann herself remains in the shadows, Greer provides an intriguing analysis that helps us understand more about the person Ann might have been. Reader interest probably will be based more on the author’s name than on the subject. --Mary Ellen Quinn
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But what does Shakespeare say? A reading of his plays tells quite a different story. While scholars have searched in vain for a consistent philosophical thread running through his plays, the Bard is very consistent when it comes to women and marriage. He adored women, and portrayed a good marriage as something heroic. Shakespeare created a series of female characters who were both passionate and pure, who gave their hearts spontaneously into the keeping of the men they loved and remained true to the bargain in the face of tremendous odds. The men in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and The Winter's Tale, all err in not trusting their wives. While female characters, having spontaneously and often suddenly committed themselves to a man, never swerve from the commitment, though in respecting it they may be called up to risk their lives, the male characters will break their vows at the drop of a hat. The inconstancy of men causes no great upheaval in the Shakespeare world, but when the solidity and truth of women are undermined, as in Titus Andronicus, Troilus and Cressida, and King Lear, the world regresses to savagery. Order is restored when men come to their senses regarding women.
So why the prejudice against Ann Hathaway by Shakespearean scholars who should know better? Writes Greer: "The possibility that a wife might have been closer to their idol than they could ever be, understood him better than they ever could, could not be entertained."
What do we as readers make of this? Scholars are people too. As Shakespeare himself might put it:
. . . scholar, proud scholar,
Dress'd in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd--
His glassy essence--like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep . . .
Read this book. It's a breath of fresh air in a world made stale by dry scholarship.
In contrast, the gold standard for honest reporting of the facts and gentle debunking of the myths is William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (or the Compact Documentary Life). If you haven't read that, you can't be sure you know anything reliable about the Bard's meager facts. Schoenbaum may even innoculate you against the ravages of unbridled speculation you will encounter everywhere else.
After Schoenbaum's book, I might well recommend this one for the quality of the research and the alternative view it offers.
Although I found many of Greer's conjectures no more compelling than most Shakespeare biographers', some of them are quite convincing and her facts are a knockout.
Her uncovering of the history of New Place strongly supports her conjecture that it was a rundown mess that went for a song. Her study of malting and brewing in Stratford gives a lot of credence to her suggestion that Ann was running that business, especially since their 80 bushel year came at the presumed peak of Shakespeare's literary production. Her coverage of the Grevilles' and Combe's actions in the enclosure battles and the contrast in the respective reactions of Shakespeare and Richard Quiney is outstanding. Her analysis of 16th Century reports of the progress of syphilis symptoms and treatments of the time offers new insight into a common hypothesis for Shakespeare's abandonment of theater in his late 40's and for the darkness of his retirement to Stratford.
I would say the research here is top-notch, provocative and a perfect addition to Schoenbaum's sober classic. I think it is possible to disagree with many of Greer's conjectures and still be very grateful for the light her research throws on many of the accepted facts. If you next move on to Will Power: Essays on Shakespearean Authority, in three books you will have a better understanding of Shakespearean issues than many biographers appear to have.
The Kindle edition is very good.
I would give the book 4 1/2 stars. So I am rounding up, not because it is perfect, but because it stands head and shoulders above most of the field and is rare in its quality and readability.
Most recent customer reviews
I respect Greer’s effort to vivify Ann Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare.Read more