Writers and Readers 2012
Germaine Greer: Shakespeare’s Wife
Reviewed by Sarah Lang
I spied Germaine Greer on my way to this session, waiting for the green man to flash before crossing the road. Surrounded by a posse of acolytes, the famed feminist was saying something about a disappointed, neurotic woman, and I wondered if she was talking about Shakespeare’s wife, the name of her 2007 book and the topic of this session.
I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy the book, a sort of speculative history reimagining the life of Anne Hathaway and censuring the historians who belittled her. It was too dense, too hard to get into, and after a while I gave up. But this session still beckoned, because I’m a Shakespeare fan and figured hearing rather than reading about Anne might be the best way in for me. Also, though I’d read Greer’s infamous feminist tome The Female Eunuch, I’d never heard her speak. This was my chance.
The famously outspoken Greer didn’t disappoint a nearly full house, demanding the lights be less bright, asking for a question “from a woman this time”, and interrupting chair Lindy Hardy (though only when she was going on a bit or saying ‘um’ too much). The audience was clearly waiting for her iconoclastic wit to kick in, and it did. Her comment about Shakespeare’s mother – “I think she was Hyacinth Bucket” – had the women in front of me roaring with laughter.
Greer, whose PhD thesis was on the ideology of love and marriage in Shakespeare’s plays, clearly feels that Hathaway was done a disservice by history. She’s still outraged about her Cambridge colleagues’ disparaging assumptions about Anne. “The mythology was that he’d been trapped into marriage by an older woman that he tried to escape from, because of his physical and spiritual revulsion with her.” What particularly irked her was the interpretation of Shakespeare’s will – that leaving his wife the second-best bed and the furniture was a slight against Anne and evidence of an awful marriage. But, as Greer pointed out, this second-best bed was likely the one he died in, and in which their children were conceived and born. She also challenged the assumption that he abandoned Ann with their toddler and newborn twins to carve a career in London.
It could be argued that Greer is replacing speculation with more speculation, as so little is known about the couple’s relationship and Anne’s life. Greer pre-empted this question by saying “the whole book is written in the conditional… what I’m trying to do is open up the subject, get people thinking about it. What I’d like to do with this book is set a lot of hares running with clever students after them.” But Hardy took pains to point out that the book shouldn’t be dismissed as a speculative counter-hypothesis, as there is plenty of good historical scholarship in there too.
When Hardy suggested there was also some idolatry in the book, Greer actually squeaked – and rebutted this before Hardy could finish her question. No, Greer said, she wasn’t trying to reform Shakespeare’s reputation as a husband. “I don’t think he was a good husband. I think he caused her a lot of pain.” As she’d remarked earlier, “The plays will do, he doesn’t need to be a good man too”.
Greer’s back onstage in Wednesday’s panel session Where Were You in ‘72? about social and political women’s issues. I can’t wait.