The woman behind the Bard
Was she blind? Was she illiterate? Germaine Greer has fun with the posthumous reputation of Ann Hathaway, writes Min Wild

Shakespeare’s Wife
by Germaine Greer. Bloomsbury. Pages 416. £37.41.

Whatever do we have here? Biography? Social history? For a heartstopping moment it could be a novel, as the jacket photograph of a headless Tudor-clad woman with carefully manicured hands might suggest. The blurb is misleading, with its crashingly inaccurate assertion that this book is different because, in previous discussions of the Shakespeare marriage, "social historians have avoided becoming embroiled in the Shakespeare industry and Shakespearean scholars have steered clear of social history." Greer’s ample bibliography shows many examples to the contrary. Her introduction tends to the gnomic about exactly what she’ll argue, and how. Can she indeed use "the evidence that is always construed to Ann Hathaway’s disadvantage" more "fruitfully", "within the context of recent historiography"?

Virtually nothing is known about Ann Hathaway, who became Ann Shakespeare in November 1582. There is also not a very great deal more known about William Shakespeare himself. The few dates and facts we do have are like headless dummies, over which countless Bard-lovers have slung their fanciful costumes. Greer is aware of the dangers: "All biographies of Shakespeare are houses built of straw, but there is good straw and rotten straw, and some houses are better built than others." Her targets are the "bardolaters": most notably Stephen Greenblatt, in his recent Will in the World, but essentially all of those who have portrayed Ann as a conniving, illiterate peasant woman who entrapped the innocent young Will – eight years younger than herself – into a loveless marriage and thereafter became an embarrassment to him.

With no direct evidence about Ann’s character, how might the work of changing this perception be done? Heavily persuasive, polemical writing might work, and much of the book – not all, though – is rhetoric: not here a pejorative term, but in the sense that Shakespeare understood it, as writing to persuade. This alone, though, is a risky strategy; Renaissance scholars of language worried that rhetoric itself might blur the difference between vice and virtue, for one man’s attentive loving wife is another’s shrewish busybody. Differences between Greer’s case and that of her bardolatrous culprits can easily unravel, exemplified in her argument that Ann need not have been illiterate: perhaps William taught her to read. After all, she points out, "given the absolute absence of evidence to the contrary", Ann could actually have been blind. Everybody is groping in the dark. So we find Greer having a glorious time, setting up and demolishing cases like a speculative straw house-builder, and sometimes seeming – as with her musings on the identity of the celebrated Mr W.H., begetter of the sonnets – to be chasing red herrings up gum trees for the sheer joy of it.

The flaw that Greer isolates in other writers, that they assume what needs to be proved", isn’t always absent here. One of her bold assumptions is that "Ann, at least, was true to her (marriage) bond". Here ground could become firmer, for later she says that "no breath of scandal" ever attached to Ann’s name "which, given the evidence of the surviving records of the Vicar’s Court, is in itself remarkable." Yet isn’t this simply negative evidence? What about a secret addiction to vice?

The central question is, can negative evidence be turned positive? It can, and Greer does this triumphantly. All readers of this book are winners, because we are given, through well-documented and scholarly work of historical recovery, a vivid and careful picture of the turbulent, hand-to-mouth, hardworking and perilous lives of women like her, and of the civic quarrels, riots, plagues and fires of Ann’s Stratford.

Greer has thus created a kind of framework of probability, constructed through reference to local archives, especially the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Record Office, and many other sources: contemporary letters, plays, stories, ballads and secondary historical works. Furthermore, her examination of relevant Shakespeare poetry and plays is crisp and zestful, and without recourse to boneheaded life-work parallels.

This framework allows for a refreshing reversal of perspective, and indeed, static stories about the past must be open to revision. Greer’s Ann is patient, shrewd, literate, capable, quiet, sensible and not only maintains Shakespeare’s family and home, but is also a true, and sometimes beloved, wife to him. Indeed, we might think, why shouldn’t he have loved and wooed her? "How hard is it to believe that an 18-year-old Shakespeare was so enamoured of a 26-year-old that he wooed her and ultimately won her?" If Greer’s is a dangerous enterprise, it should also be conceded that it is an admirable one, scraping away accretions of ancient, often misogynist gossip. Since it is only possible to speculate, is there any reason not to concede that the "Ann Hathaway" we have inherited may be wearing the wrong clothes?

This is Germaine Greer, after all; when things are "too ridiculous to contemplate", she’s determined to contemplate them. There’s plenty of gleeful rattling of cages: Shakespeare could have had syphilis; Ann, a successful Stratford businesswoman, could have funded the crucial First Folio after her husband’s death; or – this is hard to swallow – after the marriage there could have been a quiet period of Shakespearean

Her tone moves rather uncomfortably between academic precision, lyricism, and delightful straight-talking: it has been assumed that because Hamnet Sadler witnessed Shakespeare’s will, the neighbouring Sadlers were only William’s friends, "as if the woman who lived a few doors down from them was creeping about Stratford with a bag over her head."

Without new evidence, nobody will ever be able to take the bag off Ann’s head, but at least here she is a different – indeed, a much more plausible and interesting – woman from the customary "Ann Hathaway", the haggard old harpy who snared lovely Will.

— By arrangement with The Independent