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greer's ann hathaway

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    Charles Nicholl admires Germaine Greer s spirited attempt to defend Ann Hathaway, Shakespeare s Wife Saturday September 1, 2007 The Guardian Shakespeare s Wife
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 5, 2007
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      Charles Nicholl admires Germaine Greer's spirited attempt to defend
      Ann Hathaway, Shakespeare's Wife

      Saturday September 1, 2007
      The Guardian



      Shakespeare's Wife
      by Germaine Greer
      406pp, Bloomsbury, £20
      Ann or Agnes Hathaway was a farmer's daughter from Shottery, near
      Stratford. Born in about 1556, she was 26 years old when she married
      William Shakespeare, a glove-maker's son eight years her junior. It
      seems he was already a budding poet. An early sonnet, written in
      jaunty octosyllabics and concluding with a laboured pun (hate
      away /Hathaway), is thought to have been a courtship poem. Ann was
      pregnant when they married, and six months later, in late May 1583,
      the first of their three children was born - a daughter, christened
      Susanna.

      While her husband found fame and fortune in London, Ann's life
      remained firmly rooted in Stratford. In 1598, when she was in her
      early 40s, the family moved into a large house on the edge of town,
      New Place, bought, presumably, on theatrical profits. Shakespeare
      returned there when he could, which was probably not often. The
      outlines of Ann's career as a wife and mother are inscribed in the
      parish register - the baptisms of her children; the death of her
      only son, Hamnet, at the age of 11; the weddings of her daughters;
      the birth of her first grandchild, Elizabeth, in 1608. Shakespeare
      died in the spring of 1616, having made his will a few weeks
      earlier, including its notoriously brusque bequest: "I gyve unto my
      wief my second best bed with the furniture". Ann died, in her mid-
      60s, in August 1623.
      Apart from the sonnet, which tells us nothing about her, what we
      know of Ann is more or less what we know of hundreds of middle-class
      Elizabethan and Jacobean women - a skeleton of documentary fact,
      mostly familial. It is Germaine Greer's laudable aim in
      Shakespeare's Wife to rescue this woman seemingly condemned to the
      shadows at the edge of her famous husband's life, to retrieve some
      kind of individuality for her, and to "re-embed" the story of their
      marriage "in its social context".

      In part her book succeeds in this mission. She gives a robust
      account of Ann's origins and formative family experiences: she finds
      the Hathaways "a frugal, no-nonsense people", and notes the Puritan
      leanings of some of the family. She writes informatively, en
      passant, about various aspects of a provincial Elizabethan woman's
      life and choices. We hear of the costs of wet nursing, the routines
      of light agriculture, the contents of a visiting pedlar's pack. This
      is enjoyable, if sometimes self-defeating, as it tends to make Ann
      exemplary rather than individual: an identikit housewife of the
      period.

      But this would not be a book by Germaine Greer if it did not also
      include a generous dollop of controversy. Her book has an agenda.
      Its thesis is broadly twofold - that Ann has been consistently
      undervalued, for what she meant to Shakespeare and for what she
      contributed to his work; and that this downgrading has been the
      product of generations of blinkered, misogynistic, male biographers.
      Ann has "left a wife-shaped void in the biography of William
      Shakespeare, which later bardolaters filled up with their own
      speculations, most of which do neither them nor their hero any
      credit". From Edmund Malone to Sir Sidney Lee to Stephen Greenblatt,
      these "Shakespeare wallahs" have "succeeded in creating a Bard in
      their own likeness, that is to say, incapable of relating to women,
      and then vilified [Ann] in order to exonerate him". Greer rightly
      condemns "bardolatry", though she must herself stand accused of
      arrant "bardography" - ie the frequent and irritating use of "The
      Bard" as a name for Shakespeare.

      That the Shakespeare marriage has been viewed negatively cannot be
      denied. The age difference, the shotgun wedding, the long months
      apart while Shakespeare worked in London, and above all that crabby-
      sounding legacy to "my wife", which gives neither her name nor the
      formulaic adjective "well-beloved" - all these have contributed to
      an impression that Shakespeare entered the marriage unwillingly, and
      exited from it bitterly, that it was at best semi-detached and at
      worst cold and loveless.

      Greer is quite right to challenge all this, but her oppositional
      approach tends to affect her historical acuity. Analysis gives way
      to a rhetoric of female empowerment, and argument to the familiar
      sound of special pleading. She claims that as part of their
      downgrading of Ann's intelligence, commentators have ignored
      the "curious fact" that she was related to a minor Elizabethan
      dramatist, Richard Hathway. But there is no such curious fact - only
      the more boring one that the dramatist has no known connection with
      the Hathaways of Shottery. Elsewhere she says sternly, "We can find
      no evidence of Shakespeare having supported his family, especially
      during the lost years [ie 1585-91, when there is no documentary
      record of his circumstances]". This conveniently casts Ann in a
      heroic feminist mould of fending for herself while looking after
      three children. But what kind of evidence would we expect to find of
      Shakespeare's financial support?

      In her chapter "Of Ann's Reading of the Sonnets", Greer casually
      states that the first edition of the sonnets (1609) was a piratical
      publication done without Shakespeare's consent. There is no evidence
      for this, but again it is convenient for her argument - it would
      mean that the published sequence of the sonnets has no authorial
      imprimatur; and if the sequence is random it becomes more possible
      that some of the sonnets which are apparently addressed to the "Fair
      Youth" are (as Greer believes) addressed to Ann. Greer's crowning
      idea - that Ann was a behind-the-scenes promoter and financier of
      the First Folio - seems fanciful.

      The best way to learn more about Ann Shakespeare would be actually
      to discover something new about her - a formidable task which Greer
      does not attempt. She refers to her theories as "daring",
      and "heresy", and to herself as "the intrepid author", yet in the
      end she offers just a different set of unsupported hypotheses. At
      its best this is a spirited, voluble, scholarly book which gives
      some depth and some dignity to the marginalised Mrs Shakespeare, but
      it is marred by a tendency to play ideological ping pong with her
      reputation.


      Charles Nicholl's The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street is to be
      published by Allen Lane in November.



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