Shakespeare’s Wife by Germaine Greer - review by Katherine Duncan-Jones

Katherine Duncan-Jones

The Stratford Wife

Shakespeare’s Wife


Bloomsbury 416pp £20

It is said that in his latter years A L Rowse used to enter the Common Room at All Souls with the self-trumpeting assertion, ‘You’re all fools, and I am not.’ Like Rowse, Germaine Greer was a first-class Elizabethan scholar in her youth. But in this bold ‘late’ study she adopts an alarmingly similar tone. Rowse himself is excoriated for having ‘the temerity to exercise his imagination’, even though this is something that Greer has the temerity to do at all times. Scattergun assaults on shadow-squadrons of other scholars – sometimes named (‘the likes of Anthony Holden’, ‘Burgess and most of his ilk’, ‘Greenblatt and his ilk’) and sometimes unnamed (‘bachelor dons’, ‘those nineteenth-century schoolmasters’, ‘the Shakespeare wallahs’) – explode violently like Tourette tics. At times Greer seems almost to wallow in her own spleen. For instance, when glancing at the immediately successful Venus and Adonis (1593) she claims (mistakenly) that:

Year after year of multifarious shakespeareanising goes by without producing a single discussion of the work that was the Bard’s principal claim to fame among his contemporaries.

I am sure that Dr Greer must have read Venus and Adonis, yet she doesn’t quote a single line from it, nor from the almost equally successful Lucrece (1594), even though both poems, with female characters at their centre, might have provided her with some useful material. It seems that too much of her energy has been directed towards damning all those dreadful ‘dons’ and their ‘ilk’, and not enough towards looking afresh at relevant primary material, despite a superficially impressive array of ‘contextual’ material from literary and non-literary texts of the period. There is much here from Dekker, Deloney and other Elizabethan writers, yet surprisingly little from Shakespeare. For instance, Greer illustrates an account of the work undertaken by women in looking after domestic animals such as cows and chickens with a late ballad that opens:

My love can milk a cow

And teach a calf to suck.

But a much better example, and one that could quite plausibly be thought to relate to Shakespeare’s own marriage, would have been his Sonnet 143, with its metaphorical vignette of a ‘careful housewife’ who puts her toddling child down on the ground so that she can run to catch one of her chickens that has strayed.

Greer’s scorn is directed with equal fierceness at some figures in Ann(e) Hathaway’s own story. She has a particular animus against her son-in-law John Hall, who is dismissed as an utterly useless physician except in so far as he may have learned a little bit about herbal medicine ‘from women like Ann Shakespeare’. His well-attested long nocturnal journeys to visit sick persons – some of whom were servants, or even children of servants – were, according to Greer, undertaken only ‘for the money’. She doesn’t mention that Hall paid substantial fines rather than serve on the Stratford Corporation because he wanted to be free to be ‘on call’ as a doctor. Her ‘agenda’ here appears to be to get Hall entirely out of the way and to present Ann as in sole charge of William’s medical care during his final illness. There seems to be a strong vein of that now very dated brand of feminism whose twin mottos were ‘We hate men’ and ‘Aren’t women wonderful?’.

There are severe problems about producing any kind of full-length ‘biography’ of Shakespeare’s wife. This is presumably the reason why it hasn’t been attempted before. Only a minute corpus of relevant archival data survives, among which that much-discussed last-minute bequest of ‘my second best bed’ to ‘my wife’ is the only explicit allusion to her by her husband. There are many, many things that we would very much like to know about Ann(e) née Hathaway. Foremost among them is the question of whether she was literate, and capable of understanding her husband’s literary work. Greer at first acknowledges that ‘it is possible … that Ann could not read’. However, she goes on to offer us two hypothetical scenarios: either she was taught to read as a child at the behest of her ‘staunchly Protestant family’: or else, more agreeably, she was tutored as an adult by her youthful suitor. From this point on she settles (without telling us which of the two scenarios she favours) on the confident assumption that Ann(e) was indeed fully literate. She imagines her as so fully in command of the written word that she could read the Bible closely ‘when she nursed her first baby with her husband by her side’. Much later, during his last illness, ‘Ann would certainly have read to her husband from the Bible’. After his death, being also a superb manager of her own financial resources, she may even have contributed to the expenses entailed in securing copy for the First Folio. A whole chapter is on Ann(e)’s reading of the sonnets. Here Greer imagines her encountering poetic anatomies of steadfast devotion, such as ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’, and seeing them as oblique reflections on her own wifely fidelity:

My own feeling is that she was … given a copy of the sonnets … that at first she scorned to read them behind his back, and when she did begin to read them she was shaken, moved, and impressed … Then she would have tucked the little book deep inside the coffer where she kept her possessions, opened her Bible and prayed for them both.

Passages such as this suggest that if Greer had chosen to write about Shakespeare’s wife in the form of a novel the result might have been moving and persuasive, even if unfashionably sentimental. There is, as she suggests, no reason why Ann(e) may not have been a loyal and patient wife, an excellent mother, a good brewer of malt and a superb domestic manager. A novel with her as heroine would have been very much more agreeable to read than this book, whose savagely expressed scorn for everyone else who has ever written about Shakespeare is a damagingly distracting deformity.

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