Longtime feminist provocateur Greer (Whitefella Jump Up: The Shortest Way to Nationhood, 2004, etc.) proffers a wildly far-fetched “biography” of the Bard’s underdocumented spouse.
The author blithely disregards the perils of extrapolating a historical record from Shakespeare’s writing in this glue-and-scissors account. Greer is annoyed by the bad rap Ann Hathaway has earned from most Shakespearean scholars, who assume that because Ann was eight years older she lured the 18-year-old glover’s boy into an early marriage and made him so miserable that he skirted off to London for most of their adult lives. Because there is very little on record except dates of birth, marriage and lawsuits, Greer works by examining the parallel lives of Ann’s siblings and Stratford’s inhabitants: how they lived, worked and died and what their expectations of marriage were at the time. The author asserts, for example, that Ann was probably a farm servant, could read the Bible a little and was left to fend for herself and the children when Will left around 1587. Greer suggests that the purchase of New Place in 1597, usually seen as part of Shakespeare’s “gentrification project,” was “very much more likely” instigated by Ann, who ran a lively business in malt-making and money-lending from the enormous Stratford house. The fact that the scant documents relating to such activities are all in Will’s name is waved away: “the dealings of married women were invariably subsumed within their husband’s.” Using Shakespeare’s poetry as evidence, Greer insists that Ann must have loved and missed Will very much. She suggests that, far from being a chronicle of homosexual and adulterous love, some or all of the Sonnets may have been written for Ann. She is, to put it mildly, overanalyzing her sources.
An exasperating work that edifies only with its intensive study of the era’s mores; it can be used as a sociological study of Elizabethan women, but it doesn’t offer a plausible judgment of Ann Hathaway Shakespeare.