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Mistress Shakespeare

It is now over two hundred years since the discovery of a love letter written by William Shakespeare to his future bride, Ann (or Anne, or even Agnes) Hathaway. Along with it came a silk-tied lock of the poet’s hair and verses bearing eloquent testimony to his love:

Is there inne heavenne aught more rare

Thanne thou sweete Nymphe of Avon fayre

Is there onne Earthe a Manne more trewe

Thanne Willy Shakspeare is toe you.

These were fakes, of course, products of the fertile imagination and ingenious skills of the young lawyer’s clerk William Henry Ireland in a touching attempt to assuage his father’s disappointment over a failure to discover authentic Shakespeare documents. And the alleged portrait of “Shakespeare’s Consort” inserted into a copy of the Third Folio (1663) but dated 1708 is probably no more authentic.1

Ann has figured too in avowed works of fiction, sometimes as a secondary character, but also as the center of attention, as in Robert Nye’s short novel Mrs Shakespeare: The Complete Works (1993), which takes her to London on an undocumented visit to her husband during which she learns to please him sexually in the same way as, we hear, the Earl of Southampton does. But to the best of my belief no one previously has devoted a substantial nonfictional study to the life of this elusive lady.

When I heard that Germaine Greer was embarking on a biography I was skeptical of what seemed likely to be a tenuous enterprise. There are serious gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare himself, and facts about the woman he married are even harder to come by. Though Greer makes no use in Shakespeare’s Wife of the fictions I have mentioned, she is nevertheless much concerned with what she sees as fictions masquerading as truth in what claim to be biographical writings about Shakespeare (or the Bard, as she is all too apt to call him).

Ann, she considers, has had an unjustifiably bad press at the hands of (mainly male) biographers such as Anthony Burgess, Anthony Holden, and Stephen Greenblatt, and her book offers characteristically pugnacious challenges to what she sees as received opinion. Drawing on her own research in the archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust on the place of women in Elizabethan society, she makes use of the techniques and skills of a social historian and, to a lesser extent, a genealogist.2

Elizabethan England was a tight-knit society in which distinct individuals were even more apt to bear the same name as others than they are today. This creates dangerous potential for confusions of identity. Among the two thousand or so inhabitants of Stratford-upon-Avon, for example, as well as the John Shakespeare who fathered the poet there was a shoemaker of the same name who had a brother named William. William was an extremely popular name; as Greer writes, “There were lots of Shakespeares in Warwickshire c. 1580 and lots of them were Williams.” There were many Hathaways, too, and Greer makes a painstaking fresh attempt to sort them all out. In the process she speculates that two persons connected with the London theaters may have had closer connections with Stratford than is usually supposed. A John Hemynge or Hemmings (the spelling of names was treacherously fluid) witnessed Ann’s father’s will, and another John was among his seven children baptized in Holy Trinity Church between 1563 and 1582. Greer suggests that he was the actor of Shakespeare’s company who helped to prepare the First Folio; but the late Mary Edmond’s article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography provides clear evidence that this was not so.

Greer directly challenges the DNB in a somewhat forced attempt to identify the playwright Richard Hathaway, a prolific member of Philip Henslowe’s stable at the Rose playhouse, as a member of Ann’s family. She is interesting on Ann’s brother Bartholomew, a fully literate farmer who became a churchwarden of Holy Trinity and a considerable property owner. Greer uses this information to support her case that Shakespeare may have been a good husband and father:

If Shakespeare had abandoned his wife and children, Bartholomew Hathaway would have been in the best position to bring the case to the attention of the authorities.

It is often assumed that Ann, by contrast with her brother, was illiterate. Greer quotes Greenblatt:

It is entirely possible that Shakespeare’s wife never read a word that he wrote, that anything he sent from London had to be read by a neighbor and that anything she wished to tell him—the local gossip, the health of his parents, the mortal illness of their only son—had to be consigned to a messenger.

Greer tartly comments, “Certainly it is possible, even entirely possible, that Ann could not read. It is also possible, given the absolute absence of evidence to the contrary, that she was blind.” No signature of Ann’s survives, but Greer makes a good case that she was at least able to read (the same must be true of Shakespeare’s father, who could not otherwise have carried out his civic duties but who signed with a mark). She supports this with a mass of information about female literacy in the period, remarking that “reading was essential if women were to follow their daily devotions.” She even suggests that Shakespeare, “a penniless teenage boy, with nothing to his name but a grammar school education,” might have unfolded “the mystery of writing as one stratagem for winning a quiet, sensible country girl.” A sweet thought.

Controversy has raged in recent years over whether John Shakespeare and his son were crypto-Catholics. Greer has no doubts about the matter. The fact that John was allowed to remain an alderman even after he had fallen into debt “is proof, if proof were needed, that John Shakespeare was not a Catholic but a full member of the reformist brotherhood.” And she regards the deduction that Ann and William’s daughter Susanna became a Catholic because her name occurs in 1606 among a list of persons who had not received the sacrament as “another card in the house of cards that is the Shakespeare-was-a-Catholic hypothesis.” There were, as she usefully demonstrates, Puritan as well as Catholic recusants—Christians who refused to accept the authority of the Church of England—and Susanna was soon to marry the strictly Puritan Dr. John Hall.

One of the great gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life is what he did on leaving school. The supposition that he joined a Catholic household in Lancashire is clearly not to Greer’s taste (nor is it to mine.)3 An explanation by default favored by many biographers, including S. Schoenbaum, for whom Greer shows more respect than for most, if not all, of his successors, is that Shakespeare may have become an apprentice to his glove-making father, or at least that he may have assisted his father less formally. Greer attacks this hypothesis partly on grounds of common sense: “There was little point in giving a boy a grammar school education if the ultimate intention was to apprentice him to a manual trade.”

That may be so, but her argument that fathers were unlikely to take their sons as apprentices because they might have had to whip or beat them is a touch sentimental. Fathers have been known to beat their sons, and, for example, the printer John Okes served as apprentice to his father Nicholas, and later became his partner.4 A stronger argument is the fact that

if Will had been apprenticed to a fellow glover, he would have been indentured for seven years, during which time he was not free to pay his addresses to any woman.

What he did after he married and before he became an actor/playwright is anybody’s guess:

He doesn’t seem to have gone into the whittawing [making hide into leather] and glove-making business, nor does he seem to have begun sheep-herding or dairying or horse-breaking. If he had he probably would never have become a playwright.

And with uncharitable if understandable impatience, Greer finds it “more likely that he wandered about like Mr. Micawber looking for something to turn up. All that turned up were more mouths to feed.”

Greer goes to town on the topic of Shakespeare’s courtship. The fact that (unless Susanna’s birth was dangerously premature) Ann was pregnant at the time of her marriage, combined with her being eight years older than William, has led many commentators to portray her as a designing older woman who seduced the young Shakespeare and lured him into a shotgun wedding. As an example of what she considers a typically misogynistic attitude, Greer quotes Anthony Holden:

Sometime that August, after wandering the mile or so west down the rural footpath to the tiny village of Shottery, the worldly eighteen-year-old committed an indiscretion that would profoundly affect the rest of his life. Was it a careless roll in the hay…?

As Greer points out, there was nothing unusual in Ann being unmarried at the age of twenty-six, though it was indeed unusual for a young man to marry at the age of eighteen. William is one of only three Stratford men between 1570 and 1630 known to have married when they were under twenty, and the only one of these whose bride was already pregnant.5

Premarital pregnancy was common, but Greer’s statement that it “was no disgrace at all” is not borne out by the fact that sex before marriage was an offense for which the culprits could be required to do penance in church even after they were married. In January 1625, for example, a Stratford man, John Davis, was accused of fornication with Elizabeth Wheeler, whom he married by the end of the month, but was brought before the ecclesiastical court in March “for begetting his wife with child before marriage.”6 So far as we know Shakespeare escaped this humiliation. He dramatizes a similar situation in Measure for Measure, though the punishment to which Claudio is sentenced is far more severe than that imposed on John Davis.

Greer reasonably sees no good reason to suppose that Shakespeare was not genuinely in love with Ann when he impregnated her. It has been realized since 1971 that Sonnet 145, with its pun on “hate away,” is likely to be a product of his courtship. In it the poet portrays himself as languishing for the sake of his beloved who, when she sees his “woeful state,” takes mercy on him, presumably by yielding to his passionate embraces. Shakespeare, not Ann, is the ardent wooer here. Nor is there any reason to suppose, Greer writes, that William and Ann “were married hugger-mugger by a hedge-priest.” Certainly the wedding was expedited by the application for a special license permitting the ceremony to take place with only one rather than three askings of the banns. But the Stratford residents Fulke Sandells and John Richardson, who guaranteed the validity of the marriage application on a bond of the very large sum of £40, must have been confident that there was no legal obstacle to the marriage.

  1. 1

    It is reproduced in S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (Oxford University Press, in association with the Scolar Press, 1975), p. 75.

  2. 2

    René Weis’s new biography, Shakespeare Unbound: Decoding a Hidden Life (Henry Holt, 2007), also draws on the trust’s records in a particularly strong reexamination of Shakespeare’s local environment.

  3. 3

    I discuss the question in my Shakespeare: For All Time (Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 21–26.

  4. 4

    Henry Robert Plomer, A Dictionary of the Booksellers and Printers Who Were at Work in England, Scotland and Ireland from 1641 to 1667 (Bibliographical Society/Blades, East and Blades, 1907), p. 141.

  5. 5

    Jeanne Jones, Family Life in Shakespeare’s England: Stratford-upon-Avon 1570–1630 (Sutton, 1996), p. 90.

  6. 6

    E.R.C. Brinkworth, Shakespeare and the Bawdy Court of Stratford (London: Phillimore, 1972), p. 87.

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