Laddish literature? Not in Germaine Greer’s book.

I have just finished reading ‘Shakespeare’s Wife’ by Germaine Greer. It is the most superb read. I love the way Greer becomes a voice in your head when you’re reading this book: you can hear her firmness, the way she is sure of her facts and how she isn’t afraid to proffer an opinion. And this is a book which demands that the writer has an opinion and shares it with conviction.

Shakespeare’s wife is, of course, Ann or Agnes (pronounced Annis) Hathaway, much maligned by the people Greer calls ‘bardolaters’. Ann could not, according to critics, ever have been good enough to be the wife of the great Will. Eight years his senior and pregnant when they married, she must surely have trapped him into an unhappy marriage, been ugly, illiterate, then she was doubtlessly dumped by him when he went off to London to become the greatest English writer ever. As Greer puts it, ‘Shakespeare could not have been great if he had not jettisoned his wife.’ She goes on to demonstrate exactly what she means, suggesting former critics’ opinions have been biased against wives: ‘Literature was a particularly laddish enterprise…’ The rest of Greer’s book cleverly takes each myth about Hathaway’s shortcomings and blasts them apart.

Greer is a researcher, an academic and a sleuth. She cites historical records and Shakespeare’s own works, finding evidence that Ann Hathaway was no ball and chain who held back her brilliant spouse. Greer’s book is lively, erudite and mischievous, a stimulating read full of evidence. It inspired me to want to return to an academic life and study Shakespeare further.

Germaine Greer knows so much about sixteenth century England, the  social conventions, the dates and records, and she strongly puts aside prior assumptions and fantasies about Ann Hathaway and deals with new supposition, hypotheses and likelihood in a way which makes her case absolutely viable.

The treatment of Ann Hathaway by earlier critics is inherently misogynistic or superficial; Greer shows us another Ann, who was independent, strong and an influential partner in Shakespeare’s work.

Greer creates an interesting picture of the courtship between Ann and Will,. citing one of his sonnets, number 145, which she claims was written for Ann. She calls it syntactically  ‘baggy… almost dropsical’ which made me laugh aloud, but she’s right.

‘I hate’ from hate away she threw

And saved my life, saying ‘not you’

Greer throws in a mischievous ‘Hurrah’ in at the end of this poem; of course, ‘hate away‘ refers to Hathaway and she suggests that Will courted Ann with his sonnets as it was possibly the only way he could solicit her affections, his family being impoverished at that point.

Greer goes on, citing plays such as Twelfth Night, Merry Wives of Windsor, Cymbeline, As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream  to demonstrate Shakespeare’s attitude to women, exploding myth after myth, using and reinterpreting historical evidence to create a balanced and complex picture of Ann. She covers Hathaway’s  looks, the marriage, Ann’s pregnancy before marriage, and she even suggests that it was Ann who sent Will to London to seek his fortune. Greer tells us how Ann  handled Shakespeare’s last illness and she also mentions his will, the infamous second-best bed and then she boldly suggests that ‘Ann Shakespeare could have been involved in the First Folio project.’

This is beautifully paced and informative book. It is well written: it is always stimulating, entertaining and provocative, as Greer  challenges the current thinking, mostly skewed, outmoded male perspectives, so engagingly. Her writing is confident and persuasive and I read this book in days, enjoying every page and every detail. Brilliant and highly recommended. ‘Shakespeare’s Wife.’ The exposé!



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