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.

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.