By Germaine Greer
Harper. 406 pp. $26.95
In her classic feminist essay "A Room of One's Own," Virginia Woolf imagined what might have happened if Shakespeare had had a sister as extraordinarily gifted as himself, "as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was." A female Shakespeare, she concluded, would have run away to London, become the mistress of an actor, gotten pregnant and killed herself, without ever writing a word. It would not have been possible for a woman to write the plays of Shakespeare "in the age of Shakespeare."
While Shakespeare's sister is the heroine of a feminist parable, Shakespeare's wife, Ann Hathaway, really lived in Stratford, although little is known about her beyond the infamous will in which he left her his second-best bed. In this partly scholarly, partly speculative, consistently lively book, the feminist and Renaissance scholar Germaine Greer has set out to rescue Hathaway from centuries of slurs by sneering academics, biographers and what she calls "bardolaters" and to propose a much more significant and important life for her.
According to Greer, "no one has ever undertaken a systematic review of the evidence against Ann Shakespeare, while every opportunity to caricature and revile her has been exploited to risible lengths." Greer sums up a long list of these malicious and mistaken "Shakespeare wallahs," from Thomas Moore, who declared that Shakespeare hated his wife, to James Joyce, who imagined her in "Ulysses" as an ugly old woman. Greer holds up to scorn Shakespeare's biographers, mostly male, and attacks their "nonsense," "ignorance and prejudice," almost to the point of calling them conspirators who are "eager to traduce" Hathaway and "want her, need her to have had no inkling of the magnitude of her husband's achievement." On the basis of almost no historical evidence, she charges, they have concluded that Hathaway was illiterate, an older seductress who got pregnant and forced 18-year-old William into a shotgun marriage, and a shrewish companion he came to despise.
Greer is both a polymath and a polemicist, and it's invigorating to read her fierce rebuttals of the most august Shakespearian scholars. Get back, Stephen Greenblatt! Take that, Peter Thomson! But why would these specialists harbor such hostility and bias toward Ann Hathaway? Misogyny? Incompetence? Greer sweepingly charges that they have succeeded in creating a Bard in their own likeness," i.e., "incapable of relating to women." Well, how does she know this, and what about Katherine Duncan-Jones, whose Ungentle Shakespeare she also censures? In fact, Greer herself has to rely on considerable guesswork for her portrait of Hathaway, who emerges as a lusty, resourceful, independent, intelligent woman not unlike herself. On nearly every page, Greer has to qualify her account -- "we can only imagine," "if our suspicions . . . are correct," "for all we know." She even insists -- call it intuition -- that Ann Hathaway loved her husband, "in default of evidence to the contrary."
Let's face it: No one really knows how Shakespeare's marriage worked. Greer is fascinating nevertheless on the lives of ordinary Elizabethan women. Searching court records, diaries, memoranda, wills and especially the work of British historian Peter Laslett in The World We Have Lost, she reconstructs the routines of Elizabethan milkmaids and housewives, examines the agriculture, industry and economy of 16th-century Stratford, and sets out courtship patterns, attitudes toward premarital pregnancy, ages of marriage and communal rituals of childbirth and child burial.
Overall, the reader has to be impressed by her rich command of the plays and poems, her argumentative gusto and her tireless quest to investigate Shakespearean legends. Did he plant a mulberry tree in his garden? No. Did he have syphilis? Maybe. Was the second-best bed a deliberate insult? Well, perhaps not. If you properly understand the inheritance options of an Elizabethan widow, Ann Hathaway might have had everything else by default. Greer also suggests that she earned her own money and may have helped with the publication of the First Folio.
Greer admits that she has been obsessed by her subject, to the point of haranguing even "the odd taxidriver" over the years and disarmingly confesses that her book is "probably neither truer nor less true than the accepted prejudice." Shakespeare's Wife is a rousing defense of the wives of the poets, a much-maligned and exploited group of women, indeed. But while Woolf wanted contemporary women to work toward a future when a female Shakespeare would have the chance to fulfill her genius, Greer's motives are not so clear. Ann Hathaway, after all, never wanted to be a writer, did not kill herself and, if Greer is correct, did just fine, even with the second-best bed. ·
Elaine Showalter is professor emerita of English at Princeton University. Her next book, "A Jury of Their Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx," will be published in 2009.