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:
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
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.
Greer’s task in this ambitious, brilliant and too often misguided biography is to bring Ann Hathaway to life. The obstacles she faces are formidable. Not only is there almost no hard evidence to work with, but what little does exist has typically been misconstrued by biographers – of both sexes – who have reconstructed the story of the Shakespeares’ marriage in ways that consistently ignore or denigrate Ann’s role.
Greer locates the origins of this misogynist tradition in a note Edmond Malone appended to Sonnets 92 and 93 in his 1778 ‘Supplement’ to Samuel Johnson and George Steevens’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Malone’s footnote marks a pivotal moment in the history of Shakespeare scholarship, though in more ways than Greer allows. Malone quotes William Oldys, who thought Shakespeare was accusing ‘his beautiful wife’ of infidelity in Sonnet 92’s opening lines (‘So shall I live, supposing thou art true,/Like a deceived husband’). Malone believed that the sonnet was addressed to a man, but he nonetheless agrees with Oldys that Shakespeare thought his wife unfaithful. Why else would he name his elder daughter rather than his wife as his executor? Why, when drawing up his will, did he fail to think of Ann ‘till the whole was finished’, and choose to leave her only ‘an old piece of furniture’? And what else explains his obsession with female infidelity in his plays, especially Othello, which was ‘written with such exquisite feeling as might lead us to suspect that the author himself had been perplexed with doubt, though not perhaps in the extreme’. Malone knows that he has crossed a methodological boundary here, and partly retreats, admitting that the claim that only a man who thinks he has been cuckolded could have written Othello ‘is mere conjecture’. But in suggesting that what happens in the plays and poems mirrored Shakespeare’s personal life – something that no critic had done before – he opened a door that no one has since been able to slam shut.
George Steevens tried to. He saw exactly what Malone was doing and insisted on appending a response, turning the long footnote into a running battle over the limits and dangers of biographical speculation: ‘That Shakespeare has written with his utmost power on the subject of jealousy, is no proof that he had ever felt it.’ Go down that road, Steevens warned, and you’ll end up believing that the creator of Timon of Athens had to have been ‘a wretch deserted by his friends’, and that the author of The Merchant of Venice copied the ‘vindictive cruelty of Shylock’ from ‘a fiend-like original in his own bosom’. (One can only guess what Steevens would have made of Kenneth Gross’s recent book, Shylock Is Shakespeare.)
Malone refused to concede the point, in part because he believed he knew – given his unrivalled immersion in Shakespeare’s life and work – what Shakespeare was really like, and in part because he assumed that all writing is ultimately autobiographical, so that literary biographers had every right to ransack fictional works for clues to the life: ‘Every author who writes on a variety of topicks will have sometimes occasion to describe what he has himself felt.’ Even as Greer repudiates Malone’s sexist assumptions here, she willingly embraces his biographical ones.
We are left to wonder what makes Greer’s latest biographical account of the Sonnets and, by extension, of the Shakespeares’ marriage, necessarily right and what makes those interpretations she angrily rejects (from Malone’s to Stephen Greenblatt’s in Will in the World) necessarily wrong, since all ultimately rest on the same wobbly and fictional evidence. I don’t doubt that elements of Shakespeare’s life informed his art; I just don’t know how one can confidently tell which ones do, or how they do so, and find it hard to understand why critics would have us believe that Shakespeare recycled his life experiences in such predictable and transparent ways. Given the extraordinary range of characters, situations and emotions in the plays, who couldn’t find a few that buttressed an otherwise unsupported claim about what Shakespeare must have done or felt? Aside from being unpersuasive, such biographical assumptions also play into the hands of those who argue that somebody other than Shakespeare wrote the plays (for by this logic the Earl of Oxford, who had three daughters and was once on a ship overtaken by pirates, has a far better claim than Shakespeare to have written King Lear and Hamlet).
Greer doesn’t need to insist that Ann ‘must have been the original for the shepherd’s wife in The Winter’s Tale’ or wonder whether Shakespeare was remembering ‘his own callow wooing’ of her in Love’s Labour’s Lost, because she marshals a much more convincing body of evidence: local archives that provide a rich social context for the lives of men and women like Ann Hathaway and William Shakespeare, who grew up, worked, married, had children, bought homes, grew old and died in Warwickshire in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
With the publication of Shakespeare’s Wife, I can’t imagine that any biographer will ever again dare suggest (as Anthony Holden recently has) that Ann was ‘a homely wench’ who may have ‘set out to catch herself a much younger husband by seducing him’, or that Shakespeare married her only because she became pregnant after ‘a careless roll in the hay of a summer evening’. Greer demolishes such claims one by one, showing, for example, that it wasn’t Ann’s but rather Will’s age at marriage that would have raised eyebrows: Stratford locals could count on the fingers of one hand the number of men that married at 18 during Queen Elizabeth’s reign; both men and women in late 16th-century England didn’t marry, typically, until they were 25 or so. The idea that it was a ‘shotgun marriage’ is also handily dismissed, as Greer draws effectively on the archives to show that it was not unusual for Elizabethan brides to be a few months pregnant.
Greer then exposes as wishful thinking a whole set of assumptions about Will and Ann’s early years together that are treated as fact. Most biographers pack Ann and the children off to live with Shakespeare’s parents when he moves to London – which Greer shows would have been extremely unlikely (according to contemporary censuses, only a tiny percentage of Elizabethan households contained three generations under one roof). Greer also challenges the claim that Shakespeare, in purchasing New Place in 1597, finally provided Ann and the children with a dream house. More than likely it was in disrepair and a ‘huge wreck of a house’, and, she persuasively argues, it was ‘Ann who restored it and Ann who ran it’.
In most Shakespeare biographies Ann has no life; while her husband is off changing the course of English literature (when not dallying with dark ladies and young men) she sits at home, unoccupied for thirty years or so, awaiting his return. Many even doubt whether she could read or write, while few have given much thought to how she might have been employed. Greer can’t prove it, but she argues convincingly that Ann, who came from a strongly Protestant family, would almost certainly have been taught to read, and if she couldn’t write by the time she met Will, he may have taught her to do so.
Greer devotes much of her book to considering what work Ann may have engaged in. We know, for example, that the Shakespeares had an unusually large supply of malt at New Place – at one point in the late 1590s, 80 bushels – and it would have been Ann, rather than Will, who was responsible for the malt business. Greer shows that if ‘she was making malt, she was probably also brewing ale, and raising pigs on the spent malt, curing her own bacon, and baking bread, for all these activities were interdependent’. New Place had orchards and, if tradition holds true, mulberry trees, leading Greer to consider the possibility that Ann was involved in raising silkworms (which fed on mulberry leaves). Ann may well have dabbled in haberdashery and knitting. These claims, though speculative, are plausible, and what emerges in these pages is a believable portrait of an industrious, resilient, probably devout and unusually capable Elizabethan wife and mother, much of whose married life was spent without a husband around.
But because Greer can’t praise Ann without burying Will, her arguments become increasingly tendentious. We’re encouraged to take sides, like friends of a couple going through a nasty divorce. Will, Greer suggests, probably married Ann for her money: he ‘was certainly young and witty, possibly handsome, but he had nothing else to offer the kind of girl who, as a sober, industrious, patient, frugal wife, would help him repair his family’s ruined fortunes’. Ann’s pregnancy may be attributed to Will’s effort to overcompensate for his immaturity (‘She would probably have thought him too young; he may have taken it upon himself to prove to her that he was not’). He proved worthless as a husband. The question of whether Shakespeare ‘abandoned his wife and children’ is decisively answered: ‘We can find no evidence of Shakespeare having supported his family.’ By the late 1590s, we are told, a deadbeat Shakespeare had already ‘been more or less estranged from his family for the last ten years or so’, though Greer believes that his extended absence was condoned by Ann, who managed without him quite happily.
The flimsiest of evidence – Shakespeare’s circumspect answers in the Belott-Mountjoy lawsuit in 1612, where he testified that he couldn’t recall the exact terms of a financial agreement made eight years earlier between two men with whom he was on good terms – leads Greer to speculate that by the age of 48 Shakespeare was ‘obviously ill and confused’, already suffering from the advanced syphilis that would kill him. His was not a pleasant homecoming. A saintly Ann, confronted with the sight of her pocky Will, ‘might have been able to reduce local inflammation by dressing the sores with leaves of mercury but, basically, beyond keeping her husband as clean and comfortable as possible, there was little to be done’. Well, there was one more thing to be done, Greer argues, and that was ensuring that her husband’s legacy would be preserved. Enshrining Ann in the company of women who love too much, she assigns to her, rather than Shakespeare’s fellow players, responsibility for the publication of the First Folio of 1623, repaying the bequest of that second-best bed with the gift to us all of her husband’s collected plays. Expect to see these flights of fancy appearing soon in undergraduate essays.
Her thesis goes a long way, Greer believes, towards explaining why Shakespeare’s ‘career ended so early and why he died so young’, though she knows that he didn’t die so prematurely for those times and had managed to outlive all but one of his siblings. Greer also knows there’s no evidence that Shakespeare ever contracted syphilis (though she supposes that the warning over his grave – ‘cursed be he that moves my bones’ – was intended to prevent anyone from discovering that his remains were lesion-ridden). And if Shakespeare was already demented from syphilis by 1612, his subsequent literary achievements – writing or collaborating on Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio – must be seen as all the more remarkable.
Because Greer badly wants to believe that Ann was economically independent, she refuses to concede that ‘on the strength of writing 44 plays and having a small share in the company, Shakespeare got very rich and stayed that way.’ Much is wrong-headed about this and it’s soon clear that Greer’s grasp of social conventions is not matched by her command of theatrical ones. As a shareholder, Shakespeare wasn’t paid by the play, as freelancers were. His was not a ‘small share’ but rather a lucrative partnership in both his playing company and, in time, the playhouses they performed in. Errors multiply: most of the playwrights paid by Philip Henslowe were not shareholders; Shakespeare would not have been liable for his share of the costs of servicing the Burbages’ loans; Ben Jonson never ‘earned at least as handsomely as Shakespeare both at court and in the public theatre’ for the simple reason that as a freelance dramatist he was paid only £6 or so per play; and there is no evidence that Shakespeare returned to the life of a strolling player when the theatres were closed because of plague during King James’s reign. As for Shakespeare’s earnings: by the early 17th century he had made enough to spend the staggering sums of £320 for 107 acres in Old Stratford and £440 for a share of local tithes – more money than a schoolmaster would earn in a lifetime.
Because she wants to imagine Ann living ‘manless for nearly thirty years’ and therefore in ‘complete control’, Greer is desperate to keep Shakespeare far away. She downplays the likelihood that during extended outbreaks of plague he would have fled the dangerous metropolis for home. She even questions the scholarly consensus that Shakespeare attended ‘the wedding of his daughter in June 1607’ and ‘the funeral of his mother in September 1608’, though he was probably in Stratford for both, since the persistence of plague would have closed the theatres from late April 1607 to March 1608 as well as from late July 1608 until February 1610.
The book’s polemical excesses should not, and will not, detract from Greer’s main achievement: Ann Hathaway is no longer an invisible woman. Her partnership with Shakespeare – I suspect that neither husband nor wife was ever in ‘complete control’ – played an important part in his life and works, though again, it’s impossible to know just how. Greer is surely right to insist, though she cannot prove, that Ann was literate, that she worked, and that she had an extended circle during the course of her married life. A recently discovered piece of evidence, overlooked by Greer, appears to corroborate these claims. In the late 1970s F.C. Morgan found strips of a letter addressed to ‘Good Mrs Shakespeare’ reused in binding a copy of a book published in 1609 by Richard Field, a London printer born in Stratford who knew Shakespeare well.Unfortunately, only fragments of the letter survive and we don’t know who wrote it, but it mentions a previous owner of New Place (a notorious figure called Bott) as well as nearby Trinity Lane. If ‘Good Mrs Shakespeare’ was Ann Hathaway – and right now she seems the most plausible candidate – then she was indeed the independent, worldly and literate woman Greer has worked so hard, and so effectively, to bring out of the shadows.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.