Shakespeare's Wife

by Germaine Greer

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Shakespeare's Wife

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1739

“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.

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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 Shakespeare was recalling the celebration of his wedding in these works, but it reminds the reader that the dramatist took the wedding ceremony and its components seriously.

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Everyone has noticed that Shakespeare was only eighteen when he married Ann and that she, almost surely pregnant, was eight years older. Many assumptions can be fashioned from these facts, and most of them remain firmly in the realm of speculation. Was Ann desperate for marriage? Greer notes that many women of Stratford did not marry at all, and somesuch as Shakespeare’s younger daughter Judith, who married at thirty-onedid not tie the knot when young. Was either Ann or William forced into the marriage? Greer argues that he could have escaped. If Shakespeare’s parents had disapproved of Ann thoroughly, they could have stopped the marriagebut they did not. Could Shakespeare have been in love with another woman when he married Ann? A record has been found in the Bishop of Worcester’s register of a license for a marriage between “Wm Shaxpere et Annam Whateley,” while procedures for William’s marriage were underway. There were, however, “lots” of William Shakespeares in Warwickshire in 1582. Greer expresses surprise that no one has speculated that the child who would become Susanna Shakespeare was not his. Even that unlikely possibility could not be established one way or the other.

Shakespeare’s “lost years,” the later 1580’s and early 1590’s, may have been spent in Stratford or in London. One of the sonnets attributed to him, 145, has plausibly been suggested as referring to Ann, especially on the basis of its closing couplet, “I hate from hate away she threw,/ And saved my life saying, not you,” with language suggesting both her maiden and first names. Some critics refuse to accept this lackluster poem as Shakespeare’s, but if it is, it surely must be an early effort, plausibly about his relationship with Ann. If he was spending his time composing such trifles during the couple’s early years, Ann might well have sent him off to London, where literary efforts might, for all she knew, be appreciated, especially if he was otherwise idle and unproviding. Greer finds that Shakespeareans have tended to conclude that Ann was illiterate, “that they want her, need her to have had no inkling of the magnitude of her husband’s achievement.” She could, however, have been able to read and write; her husband might even have taught her.

Considering how little evidence establishes William’s presence in Stratford after fathering the twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1584, was Ann an abandoned woman? Had he deserted her, Greer argues, William would have been a fugitive from the law, unless she did not denounce him. If she did not under those circumstances denounce him, then she was protecting him. Many men spent years away from their wives earning their living, which is what William was doing for most of the time from 1592 until 1610. No Shakespearean scholar, Greer points out, has suggested that William missed his wife and children, but perhaps he did.

That Ann had to support herself during those years seems likely. Greer rejects the notion that she lived with her in-laws and reviews the activities by which women supported themselves: cleaning, washing, tailoring, brewing, malt-making, baking, spinning, weaving, farming, and various other work. There is no evidence of what Ann did, but evidence of what other women did is relevant.

William can be associated with Warwickshire again in his late years, including the well-to-do Combe family, one of whom, in 1614, was seeking to turn much of the open land around Stratford into pasture and thereby endanger the livelihood of farmers who worked that land. Women and children went out, at night, Greer presumes, and, as recorded in a 1602 source, they filled in 275 yards of land that had been ditched as part of the enclosure movement. The law held that if a man had organized an effort of this type, both he and his accomplices could be prosecuted, but if the women had acted spontaneously, the law could not act against them. The temptation was to find a man, guilty or not, to accuse as the instigator, However, in this instance, with women having little legal status, these women were never arraigned, and the Stratford commons were not enclosed. By this time Ann was in her late fifties and both Shakespeare daughters were among the housewives of the area. Whether or not any of these women were involved no one knows, but the event calls attention to the resourcefulness of Tudor females.

William’s will introduces another interesting aspect of the relationship between him and his wife. She was not named executor, but Greer refuses to be surprised that he did not name a sixty-year-old woman to this task. Much has been made of the fact that Ann is mentioned only in connection with his “second best bed.” It is possible that he left Ann with nothing, but he also might well have given her other property beforehand. Greer doubts that the will represents anything near a full distribution of his possessions.

Does Greer fall into her own unwarrantable and condescending suppositions? Yes, she does, but these suppositions are aimed not at her subject but reflect her judgments of the motives of the Shakespearean scholars who utter their own unflattering surmises anew or repeat old ones indiscreetly. She claims more than once that male scholars have a positive and presumably masculine need to downgrade the woman whom the very young William chose to be his wife.

It is curious and unconventional to write a book about a person not only obscure but also almost completely undocumented. If it had to happen, however, Ann Shakespeare was an excellent choice, for she is a woman often speculated about, either carelessly or, as Greer believes, contemptuously. In a sense, this book is less about Ann and more about the possibilities of obscure women to be more worthy and more enterprising than posterity is inclined to recognize. A book such as this one is not going to convince most Shakespearean scholars that Ann was a force with which to be reckoned, but they may well become more cautious in dismissing her as a nonentity.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 63

Booklist 104, nos. 9/10 (January 1, 2008): 21.

The Boston Globe, May 28, 2008, p. E8.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 3 (February 1, 2008): 130.

Library Journal 133, no. 6 (April 1, 2008): 83.

London Review of Books 29, no. 19 (October 4, 2007): 29-30.

Maclean’s 121, no. 14 (April 14, 2008): 80.

The New York Review of Books 55, no. 6 (April 17, 2008): 6-10.

The New York Times Book Review, April 27, 2008, p. 12.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 5 (February 4, 2008): 46.

The Times Literary Supplement, January 25, 2008, p. 10.

The Wall Street Journal 251, no. 80 (April 5, 2008): W1-W4.

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