Little is known about Ann Hathaway, the wife of England's greatest playwright; a great deal, none of it complimentary, has been assumed. The omission of her name from Shakespeare's will has been interpreted as evidence that she was nothing more than an unfortunate mistake from which Shakespeare did well to distance himself.
While Shakespeare is above all the poet of marriage—repeatedly in his plays, constant wives redeem unjust and deluded husbands—scholars persist in positing the worst about the writer's own spouse. In Shakespeare's Wife, Germaine Greer boldly breaks new ground, combining literary-historical techniques with documentary evidence about life in Stratford, to reset the story of Shakespeare's marriage in its social context. With deep insight and intelligence, she offers daring and thoughtful new theories about the farmer's daughter who married England's greatest poet, painting a vivid portrait of a remarkable woman.
A passionate and perceptive work of first-rate scholarship that reclaims this maligned figure from generations of scholarly neglect and misogyny, Shakespeare's Wife poses bold questions and opens new fields of investigation and research.
SignatureReviewed by Marilyn FrenchGiven 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. Marilyn French is a novelist and the author of Shakespeare's Division of Experience. The first two volumes of her four-volume history of women, From Eve to Dawn, will be published in March by the Feminist Press