Shakespeare’s life story is full of holes, and his wife has fallen into one of them. We know that William Shakespeare and Ann Hathaway were married in 1582, and that she stayed behind in Stratford-upon-Avon while he pursued a career in London. Beyond that, though, Ann’s life is almost a complete blank, with only a few church records showing when her children were baptized and when those children buried her. In “Shakespeare’s Wife,” Germaine Greer works to fill the “wife-shaped void in the biography of William Shakespeare.” The result is learned, rousing, lively -- and often downright infuriating.
Greer is no scholarly dilettante. She wrote her Cambridge doctoral dissertation on Shakespeare, and she knows her way around an archive. She puts that learning to good use when she takes Shakespeareans to task for making foolish assumptions, often at the expense of women. She also writes engagingly; the book will be an exciting read even for nonspecialists. But it’s ultimately unsatisfying because Greer tries to do four things at once and these are fundamentally incompatible.
The first project is the most successful: Greer gives a vivid and detailed account of Tudor women’s lives. Original archival research makes “Shakespeare’s Wife” an impressive work of social history, offering new insights into 16th century marriage, childbirth, folk medicine, cheese making and a thousand other subjects. Greer is sometimes too ready to use literature as evidence about real life, and occasionally she lets details pile up without a purpose. But her research is sound, and anyone interested in early modern women’s lives will benefit from it.
Greer’s second project is the most praiseworthy: She attacks the irresponsible speculation that has marred every life of Shakespeare for three centuries. Ignorance has never stopped biographers from presenting their guesses as facts, and Greer takes delight in whacking them for it. “Most scholars,” she writes, “agree that Shakespeare returned from London for the funeral of his father in September 1601 . . . mainly because they think he should have. There’s certainly no evidence that he did.” Just so, and well said.
The book’s third project is the most controversial: Greer indicts generations of biographers for misogyny. Writers have called Ann homely, ignorant, greedy, shrewish, sex-starved and worse, and she lambastes them for treating her the way they’ve treated all women. This is classic Greer, who has built her reputation on a take-no-prisoners style of feminist criticism. But while it can make for rousing polemic, it can also be misleading. Some of her targets have been dead for 100 years, but she lumps the eminent Victorians with the modern critics, giving no hint of who wrote when. Worse, her mode of righteous crusading means that disagreeing with her is always a sign of a moral failing: To be of another opinion is to be both a knave and a fool.
The fourth project is the most troublesome: Even as Greer attacks others for reckless speculation, she engages in it herself. While excoriating biographers for giving Shakespeare a foolish, greedy wife, she replaces the shrew with an enlightened modern feminist. Greer’s Ann, though, is every bit as fictional as the other. Sometimes, it’s obvious that she’s speculating. In 1585, Ann bore twins, Judith and Hamnet: “We don’t know who came first, but we may guess that it was Judith.” Well, sure -- we can guess many things. But nonspecialists will not always know when she’s guessing. Greer’s Ann, for instance, managed the family finances, nursed Shakespeare through his terminal syphilis and helped to collect his plays into the famous First Folio. Is any of this true? Greer can make these claims only by systematically inflating her evidence: “possibly” is promoted to “probably,” “probably” to “would have,” “would have” to “must have” and “must have” to “did.”
AS she works to maximize her own evidence, she minimizes the contributions of others. Yes, there have been male chauvinists aplenty among Shakespeare’s commentators, but Greer sees nothing else. She rarely mentions other scholars’ names without accusing them of “nonsense” and “absurdity” (two of her favorite words). She declares to the world that she’s the first person ever to treat Ann sympathetically, but she can do it only by ignoring hundreds of feminist Shakespeareans and thousands who’ve worshiped in the romantic cult of Ann Hathaway. Since the 1860s, the Hathaway cottage has been a popular tourist destination -- surely, not every pilgrim made the trip just to scoff at her.
The real problem with “Shakespeare’s Wife” is that it says more about fantasies than about the real world -- both the fantasies of the old-fashioned misogynists and of the modern feminist. Greer does valuable work when she blasts such fantasies, but it’s hard not to be disappointed when she does her own fantasizing. A reader who makes it to the end learns that her book is “probably neither truer nor less true than the accepted prejudice,” but most will expect better. Though Greer refuses to believe it, many would be delighted to find that the Shakespeares were a model couple, he an enlightened, loving husband, she an intelligent, empowered woman. But wishing won’t make it so.