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You know you are in for a good read when an intellectual and academic, who also happens to be the adopted mother of Austral-British feminism, gets to grips with the thorny issue of Shakespeare’s Wife. Poor Ann Shakespeare (nee Hathaway) has had such a bumpy ride courtesy of literary historians and Shakespeare-lovers alike. How could the wife of the nation’s great poet bear to reside one hundred and twenty miles up the M40, nearly three days away from London, whilst her husband swanned (or Globed) around the City, acting and writing and generally getting up to no good? Obviously, she must have been a nagging harridan, or else an on-the-shelf spinster who tricked her boyish lover into impregnating her, so guaranteeing a particularly illustrious catch. Obviously, she was a puritanical miss who was offended by his sexually-explicit love-poetry, his latent homosexuality and propensity for whores (a strangely difficult combination when you come to think of it), and whose only thought was to sponge off the Shakespeare family for whom she cooked and washed whilst harbouring untellable resentment. Obviously.
In over three hundred and fifty pages, Greer systematically undermines our preconceptions, explaining the situation in rural Stratford, the troubles that had befallen the Shakespeare household, and the mores and expectations of a society which focused on the ability of any woman to breed and nurture. Ann is, within this erudite and meticulously researched tome, not only vindicated as a wife and mother, but also revitalized as a vital asset to any young adventuring poet/dramatist, willing to support her husband’s long absences whilst stoically undertaking the hard and onerous duties of housewifery in early modern England.
Greer makes a telling comment on the very last page of her foray into a lost character to literary history. “All this, in common with most of this book, is heresy, and probably neither truer nor less true than the accepted prejudice” about Ann Shakespeare’s life (p356). Heresy it might be, but it is fascinating heresy all the same. At issue is, for Greer, the decades, even centuries, of male-dominated literary/historical criticism which has denigrated Ann’s contribution, relegating her role to a misogynistic footnote to Shakespearean creativity. Greer’s most vicious bile, however, is reserved for recent ‘new historicist’ writers (the ‘new historicism’ has, since the 1980s, been the dominant critical approach in the English and American academies), most especially the father of the ‘new historicism’ himself, Stephen Greenblatt.
There is scarcely a chapter, occasionally scarcely a page, in which Greenblatt’s somewhat insensitive and biased comments are not deconstructed with imp-like glee by Greer’s wit. From the very start we can judge Greer’s opinion of such literary ‘fiction’ when she ironically states that, ‘Stephen Greenblatt is not a novelist or a journalist but a renaissance scholar’ (p8). The remaining three hundred and forty-two pages represent Greer’s tongue-in-cheek efforts to disprove this statement. Time and again, the spectre of phallocentrism is exposed in traditional images of Ann’s life; time and again, Greer presents historical evidence which counters these apparent misconceptions.
Yes, at times this historical evidence can weigh a chapter down. There is an odd disjunction between a best-selling writer being promoted with all the fanfare of her stable-mate at Bloomsbury, J K Rowling, and a book with falls between two stools of impeccable historical research and a regard for its lay readership. Even so, perseverance will really pay dividends as the narrative unfolds to reveal Greer’s eventual thesis that ‘as we can find no evidence of Shakespeare having supported his family, especially during the lost years [of his life], we must assume that Ann Shakespeare was financially independent and assessed for tax purposes as feme sole’ (p322). This conclusion, which, as Greer admits, is itself unusual and highly speculative, raises the prospect that Mrs Shakespeare was the financial ‘angel’ behind the expensive publication of the First Folio, that remarkable collection of Shakespeare plays published seven years after her husband’s death.
Whether wealthy wife (and a lucky catch for young Shakespeare), whether loving and supportive partner who cared for children and extended family in her husband’s absence, whether carer for a sick and dying spouse, or whether ultimate financial backer to an undertaking, the importance of which is acknowledged throughout the world, Ann Shakespeare is certainly restored to an unexpectedly prominent position by Greer’s book. As a collation of all the available evidence from Stratford’s civic and religious records, this is invaluable. As a fascinating insight into a lost world from the perspective of one strong woman, dedicated to another, it is unique, erudite and poignant.
Kevin Quarmby © 2007
Originally published on R&V 13-11-07
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