Saturday, February 13, 2010

Ugh. I'm only finished two books now. Book number 2 for the year is Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer. Yes, that Germaine Greer. Anyway, this book is exactly what it sounds like, it is a 'biography' of Shakespeare's wife, the much vilified Ann Hathaway. But the thing is, and this is the crux of Greer's entire book, it WHY is it popular in scholarly works about Shakespeare, to vilify his wife so? This ill-treatment of a woman who perhaps didn't deserve to be branded so is based pretty much on only three things; that Shakespeare didn't move his family to London when he was there, that we don't know how often he journeyed home to Stratford during his years in London and, finally (and supposedly the most damning evidence), he left Ann his second-best bed in his will.

There is little actual documented evidence left over about Shakespeare, and really even less about Ann. But over the years, it has been fairly widely 'accepted' that Shakespeare and Ann did not have a happy marriage, that she basically trapped him (she was older than he and she was pregnant when they married) and he resented her for this in all their years together, so basically abandoned his wife and children for his career in London.

But Greer does her best to offer plausible arguments to refute this. She painstakingly sifts through records of common lives of contemporaries of Shakespeares’, and she contends that back then there was nothing unusual in a baby’s being born six months after a marriage. She also demonstrates that an unmarried woman in her mid-20s would not have been considered exceptional or desperate. Ann Hathaway, Greer argues, was likely to be literate, and given the relative standing of their families in Warwickshire, she may very well have been considered a more desirable match than her husband. So there all you Ann haters. Greer also puts forth the idea that Shakespeare may not have supported his family financially, and so makes Ann very capable of many domestic tasks that would allow her to be financially independent, which was also not a stretch for the time, according to documents left from the era.

Of course, all this is pure speculation on Greer's part. She does her best to back it up by using all available documents she can find and read from the times, and sometimes this proof does get hard to slog through. The vast cast of characters Greer introduces from Stratford (and other places) gets to be difficult to keep track of, and sometimes, the detail is so overwhelming that I found myself forgetting what it was Greer was trying to use these anecdotes in defense of.

But overall, Greer paints a picture of a woman who is extremely capable, loyal and intelligent. Greer's Ann is much more interesting than anyone has ever given her credit for being in the past, and I found myself hoping that Ann was closer to Greer's thesis, because otherwise, it makes all of Shakespeare's beautiful writings on love seem a little more empty.*

*I've never bought into the idea that some of Shakespeare's sonnets were written to a man, given the way homosexuality was condemned in Elizabethan England. For Shakespeare to have written such blatant offerings to a man would have been incredibly ill-advised. Greer does touch on this in her book as well, and I found myself thinking her explanations made much more sense. Oh, and I also hated the movie Shakespeare in Love. Pure bunk.