Second-best bed, indeed
Very little of what we know about Shakespeare's life can be documented; of his wife, Ann Hathaway, we know even less. Because of the little we do know about their relationship—primarily that Shakespeare left her his "second-best bed"—Shakespeare biographers have assumed Ann played virtually no important role in his life. Germaine Greer, a scholar best known for The Female Eunuch, would have us consider other possibilities. With a dazzling display of erudition and lively prose, her Shakespeare's Wife is a delight to read and a breath of fresh air for those interested in the Bard's life.
Greer differs from Stephen Greenblatt, whose Will in the World is the most acclaimed Shakespeare biography of recent times, on numerous points. While Greenblatt believes Shakespeare's marriage was a mismatch and that he "contrived" to get away from his family in search of a more satisfying life in London, Greer notes that in the 16th century it was a crime for a man to live away from his wife. Also, we have nothing to indicate that Ann asked for her husband to be charged with desertion. While Greenblatt says Shakespeare was "curiously restrained" in his depictions of normal married life, Greer argues that in literature, marriage may be the happy ending, but we don't stay around to see what happens next—unless the marriage is dysfunctional. She adds that though we don't have letters from Shakespeare to Ann, we don't have his letters to anyone else either. Greer uses specific examples from Shakespeare's plays and sonnets to illustrate how his work may have been influenced by life with Ann. The key word is "may"; she is careful to qualify every statement in this regard. Sonnet 110, for example, reads "like an apology to his oldest and truest love," she says, while the well-known Sonnet 29 is concerned with solitude, self-imposed distance and unrealized ambition. Many times in his work, Greer writes, Shakespeare "confronted the two-in-one paradox of marriage, knowing it to be a contradiction in terms while celebrating its grace and power."
Greer also has much to say about the lives of women in Shakespeare's time. She points out that all women of the era worked in some way and without evidence thatShakespeare supported his family in Stratford, Greer makes a strong case for Ann's running a successful brewing, winemaking and/or sericulture business to sustained them. Even those who disagree with Greer's interpretation should find Shakespeare's Wife stimulating. Her radical exploration of Ann Hathaway is a compelling triumph.