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…

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