How is that we know her so little and yet dislike her so heartily? To the extent that most of us have any impression at all of Ann Shakespeare, we tend to believe that she was an unattractive shrew, a pregnant spinster who roped Shakespeare into an unwanted marriage, a harridan from whom he sought to flee.
And yet what evidence supports such notions? Almost none, feminist writer Germaine Greer crisply demonstrates in her new quasi-biography, Shakespeare’s Wife. (I say “quasi-biography” because in truth there isn’t enough information available to serve up the genuine item.)
Here’s what we do know: Ann was eight years older than her playwright husband; she gave birth only six months after they married; she and Shakespeare lived apart for much of their marriage (she in Stratford, he in London); and when he died he left her only his bed. From this literary historians have extrapolated the odiousness of Ann Shakespeare.
But now it’s Greer to the rescue. “Vilifying her,” pronounces Greer (who has a PhD from the University of
Cambridge with a thesis on Shakespeare’s early comedies), “is puerile.” Into “the wife-shaped void” in Shakespeare’s biography she steps, marshaling good common sense and compelling demographic evidence to tell a very different story.
Looking at records of marriages at the time, Greer points out that marrying at 26 did not make Ann an old bride by Elizabethan standards. (Shakespeare’s age is the surprise.) Also, pregnancy at the time of marriage was rather common in the era, although the laws were very loose. Had Shakespeare not wanted to marry Ann, he could easily have avoided doing so. And as for that bed – it turns out that a bed was often the most valuable item in an Elizabethan household.
Greer also argues that silence may do Ann credit. She lived long apart from her husband and yet there is no record of her ever taking charity or causing a scandal.
In the end, concedes Greer, positive suppositions about Ann may be “neither truer nor less true than the accepted prejudice.” And yet what could be healthier for literary history than a well-reasoned argument that sets “accepted prejudice” on its head?
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.