Biography: Shakespeare’s Wife, by Germaine Greer

4.0 out of 5 stars A new Ann Hatheway

For centuries, admirers of the Bard have been wondering why he married Ann Hatheway only to leave her for most of the rest of his life. Historically, scholars have almost universally blamed Ann, primarily through the mechanism of applying passages from Shakespeare’s works to his wife, particularly if they are critical in content. Germaine Greer justifiably found this practice unacceptable. Using documentary evidence, the genuine tools of credible biography, Greer has written the first comprehensive overview of Ann Shakespeare’s life.

Regrettably, very little documentation exists. Greer studied that which she could uncover, and thoughtfully blended it with factual information about the lives of typical, plebian women of the Elizabethan eras. The result is a plausible hypothesis about how Ann might have managed her situation as a woman left on her own to care for herself and her young children. And plunking herself down on her in-laws, as her detractors surmise, was not the option she selected. Greer presents her reader with an independent, capable Ann Shakespeare, one who was probably an astute business woman who did more than simply manage.

Greer, a Shakespeare scholar in her student days, also reinterprets passages of his writing, more favorably with respect to women and marriage. Where she misses her mark is when she overindulges in speculation, as, for instance, when she theorizes that the lengthy separation of Will and Ann could have been due to his having contracted syphilis. This is not a new idea, but Greer went overboard in imagining his medical treatment and early death, in great detail. Similarly, Greer devoted too much space to elaborating on business deals and other minutia not directly impacting Ann herself.

Flaws notwithstanding, Greer has done a service to women’s history by offering the world an Ann Shakespeare who was more than a discarded wife who made miserable the life of her husband.

I read this book as part of the 2009 Themed Reading Challenge (see sidebar).

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