Visible Woman

James Shapiro

  • Shakespeare’s Wife by Germaine Greer
    Bloomsbury, 406 pp, £20.00, September 2007, ISBN 978 0 7475 9019 4

We know little for sure about Shakespeare’s wife and what she was like, and even less about their marriage, other than that Ann Hathaway gave birth to three children: Susanna in 1583 and twins, Judith and Hamnet, two years later. The few surviving scraps of evidence raise as many questions as they answer, especially the will in which Shakespeare bequeathed Ann their ‘second best bed’. No record of Ann Hathaway’s baptism has been found. The only reason to believe that she was eight years older than Shakespeare is that a brass plate, set in the stone over her grave, records that Ann ‘departed this life on the sixth day of August 1623 being of the age of 67 years’. If it turns out that the engraver was misinformed about her age or that his hand slipped and changed a 1 into a 7, the racy story of an 18-year-old Shakespeare marrying an older woman will need to be rewritten.

By the late 18th century, scholars despaired of discovering much more about Shakespeare’s personal life. A frustrated Edmond Malone even published a notice calling on those ‘possessed of ancient papers’ to ‘take the trouble to examine them, or permit others to peruse them’, for ‘much information might be procured, illustrative of the history of that extraordinary man.’ In 1794 a teenager called William Ireland acted on the suggestion, excitedly reporting that he had made the acquaintance of a ‘Mr H.’, who invited him to sift through old letters and deeds in his London residence. Rummaging through an ancient trunk, Ireland found a number of 16th-century documents, the most remarkable of which was a letter from Shakespeare to Ann Hathaway:

Dearesste Anna

As thou haste alwaye founde mee toe mye Worde moste trewe soe thou shalt see I have stryctlye kepte mye promyse … I cheryshe thee inne mye hearte forre thou arte as a talle Cedarre stretchynge forthe its branches ande succouruynge smaller Plants fromme nyppynge Winneterre orr the boysterouse Wyndes Farewelle toe Morrowe bye tymes I wille see thee tille thenne Adewe sweete Love

Thanne everre

Wm Shakspeare

A brief poem appended to the letter, also addressed to ‘Anna Hatherrewaye’, begins:

Is there inne heavenne aught more rare
Thanne thou sweete Nymphe of Avon fayre
Is there onne Earthe a Manne more trewe
Than Willy Shakspeare is toe you

This juvenilia confirmed what many wanted to believe: the author of the Sonnets had been an ardent and ‘trewe’ lover. Shakespeare’s letter and poem, soon published along with other finds by Ireland’s father, met with near universal praise for their ‘delicacy of passion and poetical spirit’.

The most outspoken naysayer was Edmond Malone, who published a devastating critique of Ireland’s discoveries. Malone pointed out, among other things, that women weren’t named ‘Anna’ in Elizabethan England, that 16th-century lovers didn’t call each other ‘dearest’, and that nobody spelled this ridiculously back then. The poem and letter were amateurish fakes. Disgraced, Ireland confessed as much. Malone’s attack put an end to Shakespeare forgeries; after this, anyone who wanted to invent something about Shakespeare would have to write a biography.

As it happens, there is a poem – Sonnet 145 – that many Shakespeare biographers believe was addressed to Ann and written when Will was wooing her. This undistinguished poem is the only one of Shakespeare’s sonnets written in tetrameter and may pun on Ann Hathaway’s name in its closing couplet: ‘I hate, from hate away she threw,/And saved my life saying not you.’ Andrew Gurr was the first to point out that ‘hate away’ would have sounded to Elizabethans like ‘Hathaway’; Stephen Booth added that since the word ‘and’ was regularly pronounced ‘an’, Shakespeare may be hinting in the poem’s final line that ‘Ann saved my life.’

It’s an ingenious reading, though I’m not persuaded. Germaine Greer has no doubts, however, arguing in Shakespeare’s Wife that ‘if one of the 154 sonnets is written by Shakespeare for his wife, why should not others too be addressed to her?’ Convinced that ‘the boy Will courted the woman Ann with poetry – and the existence of Sonnet 145 is part of the case,’ Greer proposes that at least a half-dozen others may have been addressed to Ann as well, including Sonnet 110, which reads to her ‘like an apology to his oldest and truest love’ (‘Alas, ’tis true, I have gone here and there,/And made myself a motley to the view’). Greer even wonders whether Ann deserves credit for seeing Shakespeare’s Sonnets into print in 1609, a ‘possibility that … no scholar has ever considered’ – which will come as a surprise to longtime LRB readers who remember Barbara Everett’s similar argument in these pages.[*]

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[*] LRB, 18 December 1986.

[†] Notes and Queries, October 1978.