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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.

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. 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.

  7. 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.”

  8. 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.

  9. 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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