Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 18, 2014

Shakespeare’s Wife (2007), by Germaine Greer

Germaine Greer has always made me think about things in a different way.  I like her iconoclastic style, and I like her dry, witty humour.

I like Shakespeare too.  I love the Sonnets.  My favourite plays are all the well-known ones, the ones I’ve seen performed: Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, The Tempest, Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Henry IV Part 2, and The Taming of the Shrew (I’ve only seen that one on screen).  But I’ve never been much interested in all the speculation about authorship and whatnot, so I wasn’t too sure that I would enjoy Greer’s analysis of the representation of Ann Hathaway in Shakespeare’s Wife.

I needn’t have worried.  Greer systematically unpacks what purports to be scholarly argument in favour of Ann-as-Shrew and tears the claims to shreds.  Not a shred of evidence for that, she says, demolishing some hapless scholar’s magnum opus.  Nonsense, no way in the world that could have happened at that time and in that society, she says.  Foolhardy in his certainty, she announces.  Greer doesn’t shilly-shally – she is refreshingly decisive and provocative.   She even suggests that Shakespeare would have had it out with one Anthony Burgess, if he’d known how Burgess (writing in 1970)  stigmatised Ann as promiscuous and  Shakespeare as being bullied into the marriage with bitter resignation:

We may wonder how flattering Shakespeare would have found Burgess’s estimate of his character.  If any of this had been said in his hearing, he would have been obliged to challenge Burgess in defence of his own honour, to say nothing of his wife’s.  (p. 86)

I can imagine students of Shakespeare, tasked with a 2000 word essay about The Bard, struggling to suppress their laughter as they hunch over the book in the Baillieu…

Each chapter begins with a satirical sub-title in mock-Elizabethan English.  The Introduction begins thus:

considering the poor reputation of wives generally, in particular the wives of literary men, and the traditional disparagement of the wife of the Man of the Millennium

Anyone steeped in western literary culture must wonder why any woman of spirit would want to be a wife.  At best a wife should be invisible, like the wives of nearly all the great authors schoolboys used to read at school.  If Homer, Aesop, Plautus, Terence, Virgil, Horace and Juvenal had wives they have been obliterated from history.  The wives who are remembered are those who are vilified, like Socrates’ Xanthippe and Aristotle’s Phyllis.  Until our own time, history focussed on man the achiever; the higher the achiever the more likely it was that the woman who slept in his bed would be judged unworthy of his company.  Her husband’s fans recoiled from the notion that she might have made a significant contribution towards his achievement of greatness.  The possibility that a wife might have been closer to their idol than they could ever be, understood him better than they ever could, could not be entertained.  (p. 1)

It was Ann Hathaway’s fate to be married to the most significant writer in the English language, and she has been vilified by literary historians ever since.  All that most people know about the marriage is the age difference between the couple, Ann’s ante-nuptial pregnancy, Will’s absence from Stratford for long years, and the fact that in his will he left her the ‘second-best bed’.  As Greer argues so cogently, there is not much more than that to be known, but reams of speculation have been written about the hapless Ann, and it’s nearly all negative.

Chapter Six, which tackles the matter of Ann’s pregnancy before marriage, is sub-titled

of handfasts, troth-plights and bundling, of rings, gauds and conceits, and what was likely to happen on the big day. 

This chapter is fascinating, skewering the speculation about why 18-year-old William married 27-year-old Ann.  The most common assumption is that it was a shotgun marriage, so Greer begins with some social history that debunks the theory:

At some stage in the wooing, wedding and bedding of Ann Hathaway, the couple committed themselves by taking each other’s right hand and uttering the words of marriage in the present tense, Will saying ‘I take thee Ann to be my wife’ and Ann ‘I take thee William to be my husband’.  Once they had done this they were married, whether the event had been witnessed or not.  There were other sacramental signs, the exchange of rings and other tokens, the kiss, but the words were what constituted the sacrament.  Even if consummation did not follow, the mere saying of the words between two parties was sufficient to render them ineligible for a match with any other party.   If the couple cohabited after a handfasting or a troth-plight, regardless of whether they had said the words in the present tense or mistakenly in the future tense, they were fast married.  (p. 86)

As Shakespeare shows in so many of his plays, there were two stages to marriage, the domestic contract outlined above which was binding no matter how private, and the solemnisation in church with friends and neighbours.   The two stage proceedings meant that being pregnant at the altar was no great shame, but actually very common as the marriage and birth registers show.  Greer makes short thrift of the idea of the Single Roll in the Hay:

The assertion by the likes of Anthony Holden that Ann’s pregnancy was the result of a single ‘roll in the hay’ is more revealing of their own attitudes than of the social context of Ann’s pregnancy.  Elizabethans were not hillbillies.  The marriage prospects of their children were matters of the highest importance.  Young people were never unobserved by their neighbours and kin.  (p. 93)

The church ceremony may well have been brought forward because of the pregnancy, but the couple were already married.  What is perhaps more relevant than the pregnancy was the looming financial difficulties of John Shakespeare, Will’s father.  Ann was a good catch for a young ambitious man: her family was solidly respectable and they had money whereas his family did not.  While at every turn Greer reiterates that all is speculation, she suggests that Will may have pursued Ann, not the other way round.  What’s nice, is that she also thinks they may have been in love.

I like books that make me think about things in a different way. In this immensely readable book, Greer asks a question of great relevance in our celebrity-obsessed age: why, when the facts are not known, is the speculation hostile to the woman in the case?  Shakespeare was “the poet of marriage”, changing the focus of plays so that they were about love and marriage, featuring constant, loving wives who helped their men and brought about their redemption even when their husbands were unjust and deluded.  (And Shakespeare was no ideal husband.  He took off for London leaving Ann with three small children).  The oddness of that ‘second-best bed’ will may have had much more to do with a previous will that left Will Shakespeare little room to move, than hostility towards Ann.

The truth is that we don’t know, and we will almost certainly never know.  As Greer puts it in conclusion:

The Shakespeare wallahs have succeeded in creating a Bard in their own likeness, that is to say, incapable of relating to women, and have then vilified the one woman who remained true to him all his life, in order to exonerate him. There can be no doubt that Shakespeare neglected his wife, embarrassed her and even humiliated her, but attempting to justify the behaviour by vilifying her is puerile. The defenders of Ann Hathaway are usually derided as sentimental when they are trying simply to be fair.  (p. 356)

Highly recommended (whether you’re a Shakespeare enthusiast or not).

Shakespeare’s Wife was shortlisted for the 2008 Prime Minister’s Awards.

Author: Germaine Greer
Title: Shakespeare’s Wife
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2007
ISBN: 9780747591702
Source: Personal copy.  Purchased from Readings.


Shakespeare’s Wife


  1. “Greer doesn’t shilly-shally – she is refreshingly decisive and provocative. ”

    I think this sums up Greer’s appeal. It sometimes makes her unpopular, and I don’t always agree with what she says, but she certainly doesn’t muck around. Which is great.

    I already have this on a shelf at home but haven’t got around to reading it. Must get a wriggle on.


    • Hello Rachel, thanks for your comment:)
      I don’t always agree with her either, but she is one of our most interesting public intellectuals. She’s giving a lecture in the University of Melbourne’s Great Books Masterclass that I signed up for this year, and I am so looking forward to hearing her in person!


      • I heard her speak at Perth Writers’ Festival a few years ago, it was great. She’s very funny.


        • Have you read any of her other books? I read The Female Eunuch years ago, but I haven’t read anything else.


  2. Greer’s intellectual capacity is quite frightening but I love her. It is okay to be that opinionated when you are so well-informed and just so damned clever.
    Do you think we need an in-depth knowledge of Shakespeare’s works (mine is a little shallow) in order to enjoy this book?


    • Hi Karen, thanks for stopping by, I always love to hear your thoughts:)
      No, I don’t think you need to know your Shakespeare, I’m always in awe of people who can quote chunks of it! My knowledge is mostly school Shakespeare though I do remember writing a long and tangled essay about King Lear at university, not that I can recall any of that now. Much of this book is a fascinating look at Elizabethan life, from a woman’s PoV, told in a relaxed, refreshing way. It’s not a scholarly tome, though the scholarship is evident. But it’s also contemporary in the sense that it shows how even today we tend to look at things through a male prism, as if it were the only way, when it’s not. I’m not interested in gender wars, but sometimes that male prism invalidates or ignores women’s experience. Shakespeare’s Wife is a shout-out to say, hey, we are here too, and we were back then as well!


  3. Thanks Lisa. Based on that, I’ll definitely get it now.


  4. Lisa, I’ve never read any book by Germaine Greer but I think I’m going to love her just by reading your excellent review of this wonderful book. :-)


    • Oh Celestine, I hope you do, she is one of my all-time favourite human beings, and I am so looking forward to hearing her speak at Melbourne Uni later this year:)


  5. […] we know next to nothing about them.  Germaine Greer did it best with Shakespeare’s Wife (see my review) and Glenda Korporaal did it not quite so successfully with Making Magic, the Marion Mahoney […]


  6. […] had their contributions acknowledged.  Germaine Greer did it best with Shakespeare’s Wife (see my review) and Glenda Korporaal did it not quite so successfully with Making Magic, the Marion Mahoney […]


  7. […] Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife, which I recommend everyone to read, see my review here).  In Maggie’s novel the Shakespeare marriage is a partnership, and she notes that at the […]


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