History of her time, not Ann

March 03, 2018

Shakespeare’s Wife

by Germaine Greer (Bloomsbury Publishing)

The author is one of Australia’s best known literati and is seen on TV talk shows, so this book would surely be interesting to many.

Shakespeare’s wife is more usually known as the occupant of Ann Hathaway’s Cottage, but it was only her early childhood home, and she did not live there after her marriage; the book is about who she became.

Other historians have painted her with an ugly brush: she was eight years older than her husband (he was 18 at the time of their marriage) and seemingly so unpleasant he rarely lived with her and moved to London early in their marriage.

Stratford became Ann’s home.

However, there is little recorded of Ann Shakespeare in her own right, and so this biography is loaded with ‘‘could be’’, ‘‘maybe’’, ‘‘perhaps’’ and ‘‘probably’’. It is a historian’s nightmare as far as facts are concerned, and supposition takes their place.

This is a life mostly unknown, including the supposed unpleasantness.

The material offered is unsubstantiated, and the book instead becomes a general history of what it was like living in England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries for the middle classes. For this, there is plenty of general historical documentation. The author goes to great lengths to dig a lot of it up.

This is an eye-opener.

The rules and laws were harsh, and especially so for women. Once married, everything of hers became his, and she became a constant baby incubator, a cook, a makeshift medic (using medications and potions that were often poisonous), sometimes a brewer, a general housekeeper in a crowded house, and a midwife.

Ann Shakespeare would have seen many children buried, some of them hers, and on her husband’s death was not mentioned in his will.

Society was extremely male-oriented.

This is a fascinating history of her time, but not of Ann Shakespeare.

— Lee Stephenson

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