Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Behind Every Great Man is a Maligned Woman: Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife

A professor of mine once described Germaine Greer as the clever girl in class who liked to say shocking things. In Shakespeare's Wife, Greer challenges the predominant view of Shakespeare scholars who believe that Ann Hathaway was a desparate older woman who entrapped young William Shakespeare into a marriage that he was only too happy to distance himself from when he went to London to try his luck as an actor and playwright. Greer, best known for such feminist works as The Female Eunuch and Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet, paints an alternate portrait of Ann Hathaway Shakespeare as a capable and enterprising wife and mother who may have been just too good for her dreamy poet husband.

Greer does good old-fashioned archival research, going through sixteenth- and seventeenth-century wills, lawsuits, and other documents to give a vivid, realistic picture of life among the farmers and tradesmen of Stratford-on-Avon. She does this to debunk the suppositions and received opinion about Ann Shakespeare held dear by other (mostly male) Shakespeare and Renaissance scholars about Ann as the barely tolerated bane of the Bard's existence. Greer shows that a lot of this negative image of Ann as an illiterate country wench/seductress stems from these critics' own attitudes towards the wives of great men. Somehow, it's almost always the wife's fault: Milton's first wife didn't agree with his politics, so she must have been proud and flighty. Thackeray's wife became mentally ill, so she must have been an embarassment and burden to him. Byron's wife was a prig because she liked math and couldn't tolerate the rumours of his affair with his half-sister. Greer shows that the Hathaways and their kin around Stanford were actually practical, fairly successful farmers, and that the Shakespeares may have had pretensions to grandeur that William's father couldn't live up to because of his declining fortunes. Furthermore, she shows that William attended grammar school, but was not listed as an apprentice to any tradesman in the records; sounds like a bright boy raised to think of himself as a gentleman who couldn't or wouldn't sully his hands with trade. Why not marry into the Hathaways, who were financially better off than his own family?

While Shakespeare was away, Greer paints a picture of a sensible woman, to all purposes, a single parent to young children. She combs through contemporary records to show how Ann might have supported herself and her family while her husband was barely making a living in London. She also shows that despite the distance between them, Shakespeare did not despise his wife; if anything, evidence in his plays seem to point to a man who feels slightly guilty about his absences from Ann, while celebrating the constancy of misunderstood or abandoned wives.

What I love about Greer's style is her accessibility and even sardonic zingers. Some of the descriptions of wills, Vicar's court reports, etc. can get overwhelming, but they help build her case that archival evidence does not support the traditional view of Ann Shakespeare. A picture of an English country town shifting from agriculture to manufacturing, as well as becoming more puritanical emerges, and these people's daily lives reveal a lot more complexity than we might assume.

Frankly, I admire the kind of scholarship Greer does. She could have constructed some sloppy theoretical argument about her subject and sold it on the power of her name, but she gets into the archives, digs about and presents a persuasive case for reimagining the woman behind the Bard.

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