Shakespeare's Wife

I had never imagined that Dr Germaine Greer, the noted Australian writer and feminist, might write a book about a sixteenth century woman, known only from the accident of her marriage. If I had, I might have assumed that it would be long on political theory and short on research – but nothing of the kind. Dr Greer has amassed an army of facts and statistics about sixteenth century courtship and marriage – the role of the wider family, the frequency of brides being pregnant at the altar, the surprisingly low prevalence of multi-family living.

She marshals these facts, together with considerations about the relative financial situations of William and Anne, to suggest that the shotgun marriage that William abandoned as soon as he decently (or even indecently) could is not the only, or even the most plausible, interpretation of the facts.

Her contention, to begin with, at least, is that the Shakespeares were no more or less likely to have been unhappy than any other couple. She suggests that assumptions that Anne was completely unsympathetic to her husband’s genius are a trope frequently employed by biographers of famous men, since classical authors criticised Seneca’s wife. No woman, they infer, could possibly appreciate her husband’s genius, or be worthy of him.

Because there are so few details about the lives of either William or Anne, a good deal of the book investigates the life Anne might have led, given her known circumstances and information about other women of her locality and background. Brewing and trading in malt, taking part in the life of the town in Shakespeare’s absence, perhaps learning the new skill of knitting and even money-lending may have occupied her time.

Greer’s complaint about many biographies of Shakespeare is that they are too speculative, and she often, quite rightly, points out that there is no evidence for this or that, or that facts have been cherry-picked to suit an argument. Unfortunately, as the work progresses, it becomes easy to see that Greer has created a vision in her mind of what Anne was like – a good business woman with Puritan leanings, capable and strong. She starts falling into the trap she accuses others of – creating an ideal and the finding facts to support it. To be sure, she will pull herself up by pointing out that something is a hypothesis, but, increasingly that feels like an after-thought.

I learnt a lot from this book – both about women’s lives in the Stratford in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James VI & I,and also about the art of writing biography. Greer is an elegant writer – her prose flows smoothly across the page, clear and comprehensible, whilst conveying a lot of fascinating information. The book has alerted me to the dangers of over-identifying with a subject – there is a fine balance between looking empathetically on your subject to give him or her depth and humanity, and identifying so closely with the subject that you actually create a real person in your mind, who may bear no relationship to reality. That is the argument of Greer’s generally excellent book, and her handling of the challenge is both its strength and weakness.