Germaine Greer on Shakespeare’s Wife

The Germaine Greer book Shakespeare’s Wife (Bloomsbury Publishing, London 2007) is best read as an academic treatise on the life of Ann Hathaway, wife of William Shakespeare. Greer’s work portrays alternative readings of the women in William Shakespeare’s life, but it is difficult to read unless the reader is first of all intimately familiar with the few historically established facts of Shakespeare’s life and the history of the times in which he lived. As an exercise in unraveling biography from the minutiae of bureaucracy and scraps of bureaucratic records, the book works well.

Shakespeare's Wife

The always difficult task of uncovering women’s history from patriarchal records is worth the effort of struggling with the unimaginative name choices made by the English in the 16th and 17th Century. It would have been helpful to have been provided with an index of names, dates and established and putative relationships, but I do realise that this may well have been as long again as the book itself.

Once you realise it is an academic treatise, wanting to cover all the questions that could be raised about the possibilities being examined, it becomes easier to see the structure of the book.

Greer posits a scenario, eg Ann was economically independent of William when he went to London with his father and his wife’s consent. She then establishes the precedents from the records of other women’s behaviours in the written record. Once she has established this to her own and the reader’s satisfaction, she moves on to another possibility in the hypothetical life of Ann Shakespeare.

All the time, and again at the end she buttresses her theory with the warning of a good scholar: “All this ..is .. probably neither truer nor less true than the accepted prejudice. Ann Shakespeare cannot sensibly be written out of her husband’s life ..” (p 356)

You can’t miss the modality of the chosen verbs, but as an extended theory, Greer’s hypotheses are believable.

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