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Book Review: "Shakespeare's Wife"

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Few endeavors would appear as arduous and maddening to a responsible scholar as a biography of Shakespeare's wife, Ann Hathaway. We have almost no solid facts about Mrs. Shakespeare's life, and we know almost nothing about the Shakespeares' marriage. We know that the playwright could have brought his wife to live with him in London and did not, though we don't know how often he made the three-day trip back to Stratford. We know that in his will, he left his wife only his "second-best bed."

From this slender evidence, along with liberal and dubious readings of the plays and sonnets, scholars have created a robust portrait of the Shakespeares' unhappy domestic life - a "marriage of evil auspices," as one scholar put it. Rather than inhibiting biographers, the lack of information seems to have freed many of them to project their own fantasies onto the relationship. The prevailing image of Ann Hathaway is that of an illiterate seductress who beguiled the young Shakespeare, conceived a child and ensnared him in a loveless union.

Germaine Greer's task in her ingenious new book, "Shakespeare's Wife," is to expose the construction of this fantasy, tracing its evolution from early biographers like Thomas de Quincey through the work of respected modern scholars like Stephen Greenblatt. "The Shakespeare wallahs," she writes, "have succeeded in creating a Bard in their own likeness, that is to say, incapable of relating to women."

After sifting through records of lives that ran parallel to the young Shakespeares', Greer contends that in their time and place 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.

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Though generally appreciative, several Shakespeare scholars have found Greer's approach "stridently . . . combative" and full of "scattergun assaults." But for those accustomed to Greer's feminist provocations, "Shakespeare's Wife" will seem extremely sober and restrained. Rarely have the possibilities of the conditional tense been so fully exploited: the entire book is written in elaborately tentative lines like "she may have permitted herself the odd grim little smile" and "he might have read them out to her."

Greer has a doctorate in Elizabethan drama from Newnham College, Cambridge, and she is almost showy in her research into parish registers, in her dry apprehension of fact. Germaine Greer, it turns out, is an unusual type, with both a polemicist's vision and a scholar's patience. In spite of her flamboyant reputation, she has never resorted to the easy or the doctrinaire. "The Female Eunuch" (1971), her brilliant analysis of women's oppression, was mischievous, restless, wide ranging, unpredictable. Of the nonfiction classics of 1970s feminism, hers alone eluded the imaginative limits and rigidity of good politics.

"Shakespeare's Wife" similarly transcends the drab conventions of much academic excavation of lost female figures.




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