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Mistress Shakespeare

Greer sees the couple as so deeply committed to each other that Ann’s impregnation could even have been “part of a deliberate strategy” designed to overcome family opposition to the union. And she indulges in an unexpectedly romantic vision of a conventional country wedding, in which Ann opens her shutters before dawn on a dark (and cold?) November morning to hear bridesmaids singing the ballad of “The Bride’s Goodmorrow” beneath her window. When the sun goes up the village girls process to the bride’s house (aren’t they there already?), singing as they go. Having roused and dressed the bride they escort her to the church. Ann “would have had a new gown for the occasion.”

Meanwhile the groom, too, is woken with (she quotes) “sounds…/That creep into the dreaming bridegroom’s ear/And summon him to marriage” (The Merchant of Venice, 3.2.51–53). After the church ceremony, attended by throngs of relatives and friends, Ann is “conducted to her bride bed and undressed by her maids, who were entitled to keep her garters.” Shakespeare also is undressed “by his bride boys” who, no doubt shrieking with laughter, would have carried off his points, the ties that secured his codpiece, to keep for talismans. Greer admits that “perhaps none of this happened at the Shakespeares’ November wedding,” but wouldn’t it be nice if it had.

Another common assumption that Greer attacks is the idea, repeated by Greenblatt from earlier commentators such as Edgar Fripp and A.L. Rowse, that after the marriage Shakespeare

was settling into the life of married man with a new-born daughter, living all together with his parents and his sister Joan, and his brothers, Gilbert, Richard and Edmund, and however many servants they could afford in the spacious house on Henley Street.

Greer throws cold water on this notion on the grounds that the house was a workplace as well as a dwelling, full of stinking skins, bales of wool, and other farming produce, and that any servants in the household “would have been employed in the business, not in domestic niceties.” Moreover she argues that “John Shakespeare’s affairs were in such disarray in the autumn of 1582 [that] he was in no position to offer his teenage son and pregnant bride free board and lodging.”

Nor were the couple likely to have taken up residence with Ann’s family. On the day she married she should have received the dowry of ten marks that her father left her “and Will should have matched it with ten marks of his own.” This, Greer argues, would have covered “the rent of an adequate dwelling.” We have no record of William Shakespeare owning or renting a house where his family might have lived until the purchase of New Place in 1597, fifteen years after he married; but Greer is astute in suggesting that Ann and the children are unlikely to have lived “with her in-laws in the house on Henley Street” throughout this period. There is no way of proving whether she is right that they must have had an independent household, but, as with much else in this book, the application of information and robust common sense to lazily repeated assumptions is both healthy and reasonably supported.

Shakespeare’s purchase of New Place and its condition at the time he bought it are central to Greer’s discussion of Ann’s practical abilities and her probable talents as a woman capable of managing a household while her husband was away from home, as he must often have been for long periods of time. Her speculations on this point, supported by much information about the place of women in Elizabethan society, lead to fruitful if necessarily inconclusive speculation about how Ann might have occupied herself. Maybe Greer assumes too easily that William (whom nevertheless she sees as a loving husband) was unable to provide for his wife and children in the early years of their marriage; but, especially in the absence of evidence that Ann ever received poor relief, Greer supposes that she must have been both usefully and gainfully employed. “Female employment was universal in Tudor England; the woman of leisure is a creature of a later era.” As she demonstrates at excessive length, citing many examples from the records of the Stratford Corporation, paid work was available to unskilled women, but such work would have been inadequate for the family’s needs.

She sees Ann as possessing at least the skills that would have been expected of a farmer’s wife, and goes further in arguing that she became virtually her husband’s steward, his estate and property manager. In support of this she speculates that at the time of its purchase New Place was in poor condition—“a big tumbledown house,” a “huge wreck of a house,” “a dilapidated pile,” that Shakespeare therefore got it for a knockdown price, and that “he must have thought that in Ann he had the person he needed to manage the restoration of the house and get it up and running.”

It is admittedly surprising that Shakespeare would have been able to afford a grand house in good condition only three years after the founding of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1594; but the facts are that he did buy New Place, whatever its condition, that even the renovation of a dilapidated establishment is expensive, that in the following year Richard Quiney supposed Shakespeare to be rich enough to consider lending him £30, and that as little as four years after that, Shakespeare was able to spend £320 on the purchase of 107 acres of land in his home town as well as buying a cottage near New Place.

All this suggests to me that Greer underestimates Shakespeare’s income—maybe after all the Earl of Southampton did give him £1,000, as the playwright’s first editor, Nicholas Rowe (1674–1718), citing Shakespeare’s alleged illegitimate son, the dramatist William D’Avenant (1606–1668), claimed.7 To say this, however, is not to deny Greer’s central point that Ann is likely to have been an excellent household manager, possessed of the considerable skills needed to run the household affairs of one of the largest properties in Stratford.

During at least part of the time that she was doing this, her husband was living in London or touring the provinces, and in his spare time writing the sonnets that were eventually published in 1609, when he was forty-five. It is all too often supposed, even by scholars who should know better, that the poems are printed in their order of composition, that the first 126 are addressed to (or concern) one young man, and that one “dark” woman is central to the remainder. The likelihood that, as I said earlier, he wrote one of them as part of his courtship, when he was only eighteen, militates against the first of these suppositions. Moreover, only a small number of the first 126 are specifically addressed to a male.8

Confusingly Greer says at one point, “A man does not write sonnets to his wife,” but she qualifies this with “unless we are to understand a context of estrangement and an attempt to repair a damaged relationship.” To one who sees the sonnets, as I do, as a largely miscellaneous collection rather than a planned and unified sequence, Greer’s demonstration that Shakespeare might have addressed some of the poems to his distant beloved wife is one of the most intriguingly suggestive facets of her book. If you doubt this, try reading Sonnet 27 (“Weary with toil I haste me to my bed…”) as a poem from a husband who has gone to bed missing his wife.

Shakespeare’s writing career came to an end some three years before he died, in 1616 and presumably in New Place. There has been endless speculation about the cause of his death. As early as 1662 the Reverend John Ward wrote in his notebooks that “Shakespeare, Drayton and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.” Since then many theories, not all of them mutually exclusive and some more plausible than others, have been propounded. Ward’s statement has been refined into a diagnosis of typhoid fever contracted perhaps as a result of drinking contaminated water rather than, or as well as, sack.

More bizarre notions that have been advanced include one put forward in 2005 that he was murdered by his son-in-law, Dr. John Hall, and Dr. Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s belief that he had a cancerous growth on his eyelid and that this is represented in various images of him, some of them of extremely dubious veracity. Several recent biographers, notably Katherine Duncan-Jones, have espoused the theory that he died of syphilis. This is based partly on the fact that his collaborator on Pericles, George Wilkins, kept an inn which doubled as a brothel, and partly on references to venereal disease in some of the later writings.

Greer has read a lot about syphilis and the revolting methods by which it was treated, and spares us none of the results of her study. Though she dithers about whether Shakespeare would have been so foolish as to visit brothels, she is ultimately sympathetic with the view that he contracted the disease, that he underwent treatment with mercury in the attempt to cure it, and that this eventually killed him. She bases this partly on the fact that in 1612, when he gave evidence in the Mountjoy case, he said he couldn’t remember much of what had happened eight years before.9 Well, he’d had much else to think about, like writing King Lear. Lack of certainty is entirely justifiable, but I am totally unpersuaded by the argument that “syphilis would provide an explanation of the quatrain inscribed on Shakespeare’s gravestone”:

Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear

To dig the dust enclosèd here.

Blest be the man that spares these stones,

And cursed be he that moves my bones.

Greer argues that “the stage management of Shakespeare’s monument in Holy Trinity” is likely to have been undertaken by John Hall,

who would have known only too well that, if Shakespeare’s bones were ever to be exhumed for reburial in a more conspicuous place, posterity would see the lesions on them and know beyond the possibility of doubt that the man of the millennium died of terminal syphilis.

But the usual explanation of the epitaph as a plea that the bones not be moved to the charnel house adjoining the church, as was customary, is far more straightforwardly plausible, quite apart from the unlikelihood that Hall or anyone else would wish to advertise that there might be anything untoward about the condition of the skeleton.

Each chapter of Greer’s book is headed by a whimsical description of its contents, rather in the manner of a nineteenth-century novel. The last of these reads:

In which the intrepid author makes the absurd suggestion that Ann Shakespeare could have been involved in the First Folio project, that she might have contributed not only papers but also money to indemnify the publishers against loss and enable them to sell a book that was very expensive to produce at a price that young gentlemen could pay.

In the process she ridicules “scholars who need to think of Shakespeare as a self-conscious artist.” I find it incomprehensible that any sensitive reader could fail to regard the author of such finely wrought masterpieces as Venus and Adonis, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, King Lear, and The Tempest as one of the most self-conscious artists who ever wrote. Greer underestimates the amount of work that went into the preparation of the First Folio and thus the amount of time that it would have taken. Her conjecture, like so much else in this book, is neither provable nor disprovable.

Shakespeare’s Wife is an example of an emerging subspecies of Shakespearean biography. Other examples are James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 1599 (2005) and Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger (2008). They approach Shakespeare’s life story partially or obliquely, and they may be all the more illuminating than cradle-to-grave accounts for doing so. Greer’s book opens up new perspectives in offering alternative hypotheses to many of the all-too-easy assumptions about Shakespeare’s wife and his relationship to her. Greer is often unnecessarily, stridently, and self-defensively combative. She ends with a gratuitous insult to those whom she derides as “the Shakespeare wallahs” who “have succeeded in creating a Bard in their own likeness, that is to say, incapable of relating to women,” as if she herself were not a Shakespeare wallah. But this is an important book in the challenges that it poses to received opinion. It will have a permanent and beneficial effect on attempts to tell the story of Shakespeare’s life.

  1. 7

    In addition, R.B. Wheeler, in History and Antiquities of Stratford-upon-Avon (1806), refers to “the unanimous tradition of this neighbourhood…that by the uncommon bounty of the Earl of Southampton, he [Shakespeare] was enabled to purchase houses and land at Stratford.”

  2. 8

    The table in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 30, identifies only twenty sonnets that definitely address a male, along with another twenty-one that might imply a male addressee.

  3. 9

    Shakespeare lodged with the Mountjoy family in London and became involved in arranging the marriage of their daughter Mary to their apprentice, who later claimed that he had not received the dowry he’d been promised. The case is the topic of Charles Nicholl’s recent book The Lodger (Viking, 2008).

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