Samantha’s CBRIII Review #35: Shakespeare’s Wife, by Germaine Greer.

I like reading about Shakespeare, but such an activity always comes with a few caveats. 1. Be selective. One could quite easily read nothing but books about Shakespeare for the rest of one’s life. 2. Remember that nobody actually knows all the details about the Bard’s life, and that nobody will likely ever know, so just don’t sweat it too much. 3. Keep in mind that everyone’s got their own take, and their own agenda, and refer back to #2.

The last suggestion, I think, is the one to adhere to most closely when reading Germaine Greer’s take on the life, not of Shakespeare, but of his wife, Ann. In a nutshell, Shakespeare’s Wife is a chronologically-ordered collection of historical and cultural facts and anecdotes, designed to flesh out the identity of the woman who got left behind. Greer is apparently a feminist of note, and so her agenda here is to stick it to all the (mostly male?) scholars over the years who have dismissed Ann Hathaway and her role in Shakespeare’s life. Without getting too wrapped up in it, I think it is a worthy cause in that there doesn’t ever seem to be a good reason for the general vilification of Ann Shakespeare aside from romantic sentiment, which has the young Will Shakespeare trapped in a loveless marriage which he runs off to London to become a player to escape, presumably so that he can have lots of romantic entanglements that color his writings.

It could be that I’m just happy with Ms. Greer’s Kool-Aid, but mostly, the normally-accepted version of events just isn’t that practical. And if you learn nothing else from Shakespeare’s Wife, it is that life in Tudor England was eminently practical. Greer moves through the stages of Ann’s life: youth, marriage, child-bearing, employment, and death, and provides factual evidence (where it exists) of her activities, or, where there are not specific details, evidence of the activities of people living in the same place, or in similar circumstances. What emerges is a picture of a woman who was more than capable of living a life separate from that of her husband. Women during the late 16th and early 17th century often were self-employed and successful on their own merits. Much of the dealings in Stratford attributed to Shakespeare himself seem much more likely to have been the work of Ann, in Greer’s estimation.

Taken as a whole, Shakespeare’s Wife is pretty fascinating, and fairly plausible, as far as I can tell. Again, when presented with a picture of Tudor life, it’s hard not to see the folly of the usual notions of Shakespeare’s marriage. It can be a little hard to slog through the multiple instances provided for each of Greer’s arguments, and it is likewise difficult, at times, to keep separate the various generations (often with the same name) of individuals who make up her cast of characters. Still, if you have an interest in cultural history, whether or not you are particularly concerned with the biographical details of Shakespeare’s existence, this book is quite interesting. The notion that the role of women in society was greater than it generally seems to be portrayed was quite informative, I thought. Again, life was practical, and so everyone did practical things; men, women, and often children. We tend to attach puritan ideals to earlier societies across the board, whereas the realities of life for most people were much more earthy. This book is a fascinating look at history through the lens of a great mystery, and ultimately, it’s an almost inspiring construction of the life of a woman who dealt with hardship and circumstance in turn, and has little to show for it beyond the rejection of scholars and the assumption that “the second-best bed” was a sign of a husband’s hatred.

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