Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife.

Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife.

Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife.

Reading between the lines.
March 31 2008 7:11 AM

Greer Tames the Shrew

A feminist icon rescues the Shakespeares' marriage.

Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer

One of the very few things we know for sure about Shakespeare is that a stone slab lies over his grave site in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, inscribed with an epitaph:

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

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Did the greatest writer in the English language really take his leave with a rhyme that sounds like a 17th-century advertising jingle? And what made Shakespeare such a fierce protector of his own grave? One recent answer, perfectly plausible in the context of most Shakespeare studies, comes from Stephen Greenblatt, whose Will in the World (2004) is a beautifully assembled mosaic of Shakespeare's life, work, time, and place. Like many of the poet's biographers, Greenblatt is convinced that Shakespeare despised his wife. Hence the verse: He knew she would survive him and wanted to make sure she couldn't insist on being buried with him.

And there the matter might have rested—if Germaine Greer hadn't just galloped onto the field to defend the honor of the most reviled woman in the Shakespeare industry. Hated his wife? Says who? In her new book, Shakespeare's Wife, Greer throws down her own explanations for the verse, reinforcing them with battalions of research. Various scraps of information about Shakespeare's final years, she argues, indicate he may have been dosed with mercury, which was the usual treatment for syphilis. Anyone digging up his bones—to move them to the charnel house, as often happened when more room was needed in the chancel—would have been able to tell by the lesions what had killed the poet. Not a pretty legacy. Perhaps his son-in-law, who was also his doctor, wrote the verse to protect the memory. Or, she suggests, maybe he was buried in the churchyard and the chancel shrine was set up later so that visitors coming to see Shakespeare's very own church would have something to sigh over. Greer notes that there was an attempt in the late 17th century to move Shakespeare's body to Westminster Abbey. If anyone had started digging and found no body in the chancel, the church would have been in big trouble. Maybe the verse was quickly inscribed on his gravestone to fend off such a possibility.

Maybe … probably … it's likely … perhaps … Without such disclaimers, we'd have no Shakespeare industry at all. For centuries, scholars have trawled a tiny pool of reliable data about the poet's life, poring over each real-estate transaction or baptism as if it were a kind of homunculus that could tell us all we're longing to know about the man himself. The best of Shakespeare's biographers practice the art of speculation the way pianists sometimes let loose with glorious cadenzas of their own devising before returning to the score. Whole stretches of Greenblatt's book come across like Mozart—pure pleasure, and there's no need to believe a word of it.

But Greer isn't making music, she's defending a wronged woman; and if her book is less eloquent than Greenblatt's, it's also funnier and more provocative. She's obsessed with the other Shakespeare—Ann (or Anne, or maybe Agnes) Hathaway (or Hathwey, possibly Gardner), who married William sometime around the end of November 1582. She was 26, he was 18. She was three months pregnant with the first of their three children. And that's pretty much all we know.

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Which is why Ann—a woman with no back story—is exactly the right subject for Greer, the Cambridge-educated feminist historian whose first book, The Female Eunuch (1970), declared that women's identities had been "corrupted and extinguished" by male needs and fantasies. "Women must learn how to question the most basic assumptions of feminine normality," she wrote. "Everything we may observe could be otherwise." It's a template for her approach to Ann Shakespeare: Don't let conventional scholarship get the last word. Similarly, in The Obstacle Race (1979), she resurrected five centuries' worth of forgotten female artists, not to claim they were geniuses but to figure out how and what they contributed to the history of art despite the stranglehold of propriety and custom. Hence she's always on the lookout for what must have been Ann's real-world accomplishments—keeping her babies alive past the treacherous early years, for example—while other scholars see nothing of interest in a woman who wasn't a high-born beauty or legendary courtesan.

Greer herself is a longtime Shakespeare scholar with plenty of experience in the murky depths of Elizabethan-era research. By examining sources on Stratford, the Hathaway family, and the lives of comparable women, she comes up with a hazy but plausible CV featuring Ann's skills as a malt-maker, herbalist, knitter, and home manager. She also has a fine time slashing away at nearly everything previously written about Shakespeare's wife.

Because of the supposedly shotgun marriage, biographers have asserted that young Shakespeare was seduced by an ugly old maid and dragged to the altar, and that he fled for London because the marriage made him miserable. Greer, by contrast, has young Shakespeare ardently wooing an older woman (several examples in the plays), welcoming the pregnancy because it meant their parents couldn't object to the marriage (if he didn't want to marry her, he could have run away or denied paternity), and leaving for London because he couldn't make a living in Stratford. The only evidence that he didn't keep loving her is that she gave birth to no more children (maybe she couldn't, after bearing twins) and the fact that there are no surviving love letters (but then, there are no surviving letters from Shakespeare to anyone).

Greer also suggests that by the time Shakespeare packed and left, Ann may have been relieved. "Ann Shakespeare could have been confident of her ability to support herself and her children, but not if she had also to deal with a layabout husband good for nothing but spinning verses, who had the right to do as he pleased with any money she could earn," she writes. "Ten to one if he was useless, he was also restless."

Yet the plays are full of wives who desperately miss their husbands, and Greer believes these portraits reflect Ann. Greer has always had a peculiar soft spot for rugged, time-worn marriages that can survive every storm. In The Female Eunuch, she offered the example of Lillian Hellman's long relationship with Dashiell Hammett. (This was before the discovery that Hellman had slathered her memoirs with fiction.) Over the years, wrote Greer, Hammett and Hellman fought, betrayed each other, parted, and returned—a "strange distant love affair" more impressive to Greer than simple romance. Where Greenblatt finds a dearth of happy marriages in the plays, Greer finds more powerful bonds. "What should be obvious is that Shakespeare did not think in twentieth-century cliches," she writes. "We are not dealing her with representations of folk as 'happily married,' but as truly married."

Greer never loses faith in this relationship, and she makes sure Ann doesn't, either. By the end of the book, Shakespeare's wife is selflessly nursing him through his final illness, financing the bust of the poet that was erected in the church, and helping organize the First Folio. It's a little much—even Hellman didn't have to forgive syphilis—but it speaks to a famous quirk at the heart of Greer's feminism. In The Female Eunuch, she praised The Taming of the Shrew for its portrait of Kate as an ideal wife. Huh? Kate, the free-spirited woman who is abused by her husband, Petruchio, until she's suitably broken? The whole play is odious, but Greer is drawn to it. Kate, she wrote, "has the uncommon good fortune to find Petruchio, who is man enough to know what he wants and how to get it. He wants her spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping. … [S]he rewards him with strong sexual love and fierce loyalty." In this book, Greer barely mentions the play; but I don't think she's changed her mind. I think she's taken this chance to give her beloved Shakespeare a wife who's worthy of him and the marriage he deserves.