Monday, April 9, 2012

Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer

Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer, 2007. Read in March 2010.

Legend has it that the marriage between William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway was not a happy one. Reasons for this interpretation of scant documentary material are usually given as: she was several years old than him, they lived much of their life apart, he left her only a measly bed in his will. It is an old legend, fed by such modern supporters as the wonderful movie Shakespeare in Love and top-notch Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt.
Then along comes Professor Germaine Greer and turns the legend on its ear by presenting evidence to show that Anne Hathaway was not an abandoned invisible unloved wife at all but played a strong and active role in hubby William's life all along.
It's not necessarily so that Greer presents new evidence but that she interprets the documentation of the times and the little direct Shakespeare documents with different eyes. By meticulously studying sources of the time Greer suggests that while William was off creating a rather disreputable name for himself as a playwright and actor, far from a respected career in Elizabethan England, Anne was coping very well as a capable businesswoman at home in Stratford. Greer points out that “many Tudor wives...did not see their husbands for months on end” (page 143) so Anne wasn't even unique in enjoying “a measure of economic independence that would not be equaled until our own time” (page 162). Shakespeare returned to Stratford frequently during his London years and there seems to be no evidence that he lived apart from his wife on those occasions. And of course he retired to Stratford and died there, most likely expertly (women of the time were generally as knowledgeable as male doctors on medical care) treated and cared for by Anne.
And the infamous will? Unlike earlier interpretations of the fact that little was left to Anne, Greer shows that the complicated inheritance practices of the times are more likely to show that as an independent woman of some means, Anne would not be specifically named and that their surviving children had claims that did not make the question straightforward. Nor is the question of the bed a simple one and Greer offers the reasonable alternative interpretation that in order to ensure that his beloved wife receive a cherished piece of furniture upon his death William added instructions to that effect in his will.
Greer does not make rash claims in her book and she is actually quite snide towards authors who have done so, including Greenblatt. Readers of this blog know that I greatly admired Greenblatt but in this case I do find Greer more convincing. By placing the small bits of evidence from Shakespeare's and Hathaway's lives within the framework of the vast amount of research done of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, she presents a picture of two strong and fascinating individuals who chose to live their lives together as much as circumstances permitted. I like that picture.

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