“Anyone steeped in Western literary culture must wonder why any woman of spirit would want to be a wife.” Thus Germaine Greer begins Shakespeare’s Wife. Coming from one of the best known of living feminist writers, the statement is hardly surprising, but it is not what one expects at the beginning of a biography of a sixteenth century woman with only limited control of her destiny. It is not, however, an entirely immaterial point in this book about a woman whose life had never been competently and open-mindedly studied. Ann Hathaway would have been taught that God instituted wifehood as the principal calling of a woman. She spent thirty-four years as William Shakespeare’s wife, and she must be recognized as a person who stood closer to him than any future Bardolater and who understood him better than any such latter-day expert. Not much is known about her spirit or how much she wanted to be a wife, but Ann is a part of Western literary culture, and her life is a piece of evidence for Greer’s hard-nosed assertion.
A Shakespearean scholar, Greer cites the works of many others, often caustically, as for example Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004). She refers to his comments on the marriage nine times, sometimes approvingly but usually negatively, primarily for his assumption that William Shakespeare tired of his wife after, or as a result of, the confinements related to the births of the couple’s three children and that he therefore “contrived” to leave her. There is no convincing evidence that William did any such contriving, but Greenblatt and others have offered many such uncomplimentary assertions about the woman. To lead Ann into a more favorable light, Greer draws on studies of women and family life, some of them by female scholars such as Alice Clark, author of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (1982); Lisa Jardine, author of Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (1983); and Alison Plowden, author of Tudor Women: Queens and Commoners (2002).
Being fair to Ann is not an easy task, with so many aspects of her life little or completely unknown and likely to remain so. Any writer of integrity who deals with Ann at any length must use expressions such as “perhaps” and “probably,” “would have” and “might have” many times over. Thus they have done, and thus Greer does. She has performed her task more systematically than other scholars, treating the stages of her subject’s life in chronological fashion from the standpoint of an observer determined to avoid making easyand particularly condescendingassumptions about her subject.
Since any biography of a subject such as Shakespeare’s wife must speculate, what besides a pitifully small cache of facts does the biographer have at hand? Greer uses available facts pertaining to other young women of that time and place as well as what Shakespeare himself and writers of his time said. No Shakepearean letters are known to exist, and most of what Shakespeare wrote on the facts of life and on modes of thought of his era emanate from the several hundred characters in his plays and poems. This is dangerous territory; most people then, as now, did not think like Lady Macbeth or Iago. What more representative characters in the plays have to say, especially in a more-or-less offhand way, doubtless gives more insight into social norms, and it is interesting to read Greer’s compilation of what Shakespeare’s characters have to say about the many aspects of common concerns.
One example is the wedding. Although no record has been found, Greer believes that the marriage of William and Ann would have been appropriately solemnized. In her sixth chapter on the events of the big day, she quotes from a song of the period, “The Bride’s Goodmorrow,” and from Edmund Spenser’s account of his own wedding to Elizabeth Boyle in 1594. Then Greer presents a selection of wedding details from The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597), As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600), The Taming of the Shrew (pr. c. 1593-1594), and Twelfth Night (pr. c. 1600-1602). None of this proves that...
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