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Review – Shakespeare’s Wife

Author: Germaine Greer

Publisher: Bloomsbury

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In Shakespeare’s Wife, Germaine Greer tries to discover a truer sense of Mrs William Shakespeare; “truer” because all the details of this lady’s life, more than four centuries after the birth of the great man, will never be fully known. And also “truer” because many assumptions about Ann Hathaway, aka Ann Whateley, are so negative that they bring into question the Bard’s wisdom or even his sanity, in his choice of a life companion.

“Literature was a particularly laddish enterprise, the province of young bachelors who usually gave it up when – or if – they married”, Greer reminds us, citing writers living around Shakespeare’s time who remained single. She also reminds us that it was Thomas Moore, who was one of the first to assert that Shakespeare actually hated his wife.

Though Greer can find no evidence of this, what she does discover are entrenched prejudices about the union of this married couple. Ann Hathaway was eight years older than her husband. She was 26 and he 18 when they married. Therefore scholars came to the rather simplistic conclusion that the cunning older woman had trapped the innocent boy into matrimony. Additionally there were claims – originally made by one William Oldys – that Ann was both beautiful and unfaithful to William. Ashe was born in 1696, William Oldys had no actual knowledge of this, merely basing his impression of Ann’s infidelity on his reading of Sonnets 92-95.

Greer points out that Oldys had as little reason to believe Ann beautiful as later commentators to believe her plain, and that Ann had been “recruited into the ranks of the beautiful faithless wives”, an allegation that persisted despite the opinion of most scholars that the mere fact of her being eight years older than her husband made her a fairly unattractive proposition.

The early Victorians were scandalized by Ann (but apparently not by William)when the marriage bond between the Shakespeares was discovered and published in1836. You see, the lawful union occurred only six months before the christening of their first child. The document apparently revealed to them that Ann was just as lustful as she was designing!

But even as late as the twentieth century, Anthony Burgess vilifies Ann in his novel Nothing Like the Sun. He describes her getting Will drunk to take advantage of him, involving him in sexual rites with a dildo and then later cuckolding him with his brother, Richard, in the second-best bed(the bed being a reference to Shakespeare’s will.) Renaissance scholar, Stephen Greenblatt, is even nastier, suggesting that Shakespeare was terrified that his grave would be opened to include the body of his wife. Greer makes short work of this, reasonably pointing out that the quantrain inscribed on Shakespeare’s gravestone asks not just that the grave be left unopened, but that his mortal remains not be moved.

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.

The reason she proposes is that Shakespeare had syphilis – which would explain why his career ended so early and why he died young, at age 58.

Had the Bard shown any sign of this, or any other infectious disease, Greer explains, he would have been summarily banned from court, ending his brilliant career. And as the treatment for syphilis in those days involved the administration of mercury chloride to the sufferer, it is difficult to ascertain which would have been more lethal, the disease or its “cure”.

If Shakespeare contracted venereal disease, he would have probably done so earlier in his career rather than later. This could explain his absences from Ann’s bed. The fact is, she lived far too long to have been infected by him. And if he were infected and his bones exhumed for any reason, Greer says, “posterity would see the lesions on them and know beyond the possibility of doubt that the man of the millennium died of terminal syphilis.”

As to wills, families are regularly amazed by their strangeness. Greer produces many possibilities as to why Shakespeare’s seemed so lop-sided in leaving most of his estate to his daughter Susanna and son-in-law John Hall, and so comparatively little to his daughter Judith, who had hastily married Thomas Quiney just about a month before her father expired. John Hall may have made some binding arrangement regarding his wife’s dowry that extended beyond the bounds of fairness to her surviving sibling.

Marriage beds were by far the most expensive items of household furniture. Many were built in situ and quite impossible to move without dismantling. For this reason they were often mentioned in wills. It is interesting to note that Walter Raleigh advised his son that if he were to die before his wife, leaving her to love again, “let her not enjoy her second love in the same bed wherein she loved thee.” As Ann was well over 60 when her husband died, maybe he was paying her this small, loving compliment in allocating her the “second-best bed” in his will.

Much of Shakespeare’s Wife is dedicated to fashioning a picture of a real, flesh-and-blood woman who was left at home to bring up Will Shakespeare’s children and manage without him, while her husband travelled the countryside in his job. Greer does so convincingly, describing the sort of work Ann could probably have done: working as a seamstress, or as a fashioner of the kind of hosiery that was de rigueur for the day, a malt-maker, or even a laundress. There is no reason to suspect that Ann was not extremely competent – which would also explain Shakespeare’s will. Greer believes that she was either so successful in providing for her children and herself that she became a woman of independent means and did not require to be looked after via the will at all. Or that she would receive the traditional widow’s coffer, the undeniable right to a third of her husband’s estate, which did not even have to be referred to in his will.

With her trademark wit, Greer investigates sixteenth and seventeenth century England in a way which casts huge doubt over the historical portrayal of Ann Hathaway. As to the theory that Shakespeare’s life was blighted by marital love, one need go no further than his works to test it. The sonnets sing the praises of love and marriage. The high point of the Comedies (and most television soap operas) always includes at least one wedding as an inevitable and devoutly desired transport to bliss.

Though Shakespeare’s Wife was published in 2007, I did not see any favourable reviews in our national press, so thought that I would redress this with my own five bobs’ worth.

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