Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Shakespeare's Wife, by Germaine Greer

I'm not really sure what to do with this book. I know about as little as anybody re: Ann Hathaway, just the usual stuff - she was older than Shakespeare, pregnant when they got married, and that at some point he split for London. Everything else (forced to marry, must not have loved her, etc...) is all just conjecture. I certainly don't count myself among the "misogynist tradition" that Greer seems to be railing against in every chapter. It would never have occurred to me to assume that Ann must have been ugly, for example. But apparently there have been numerous Shakespeare biographers who wrote exactly that. Who knew? That's the price I pay for being at the outer rim of Shakespeare knowledge. Much of the controversy she discusses, and clearly wrote this book to address, I knew nothing about. Or I suppose, to be more accurate, I just never really gave it much thought.

Let's get the biography bits out of the way first, and then get to the good stuff. When I first heard about this book I assumed that it would be like most others, pulling together the few "facts" along with heaping helpings of "and then we can assume it went a little something like this." This book is certainly no exception, as there are far fewer facts known about Ann Hathaway than there are about Shakespeare. So Greer supplements them with lengthy expositions about life at the time, such as an entire chapter on pregnancy (this may be the only Shakespeare-related work I ever read that contains advice on massaging the perineum....) On the one hand it is fine and accurate and gives a picture of what the birth of Shakespeare's children must have been like, while on the other it tells us nothing definitive. There are no diaries or any such notes about these things, so we have to assume that Shakespeare and his family were pretty normal. It's a perfectly legitimate assumption, "normal until proven extraordinary" reasoning that still leaves you disappointed. Although you have in fact learned something (at least, I did), you don't feel like you learned something about Hathaway herself. Make sense? Just like I don't study Elizabethan and Jacobean history in general - I want to know about Shakespeare the person. I'm not satisfied to accept what life was like around him.

Now, repeat that pattern often, for all other subjects. What was their courtship like? Their wedding? Where did they live afterward? In each chapter it is the same -- present some "evidence" about what life was like by examining not just official documents, but also the writing of the time, including Shakespeare's (I particularly like how she made liberal use of Taming of the Shrew to explain how a wedding would have gone, without the implied assumption that maybe that's how Shakespeare's marriage went as well). Then, use it to destroy the "misogynist tradition", by which she almost entirely means one Mr. Stephen Greenblatt (more on that later). Then start in with the "maybe it went something like this" ideas. To be fair to the author, she does do the equivalent of a literary shoulder shrug when she does this, freely admitting that it could be one way or the other and we'll just never know.

So now let's talk about the more fun bits. Rumor has it that this whole book is actually Germaine Greer's little joke, an attack on traditional Shakespeare biography that works by painting a complimentary picture of a target that that damned misogynist tradition has so long painted as the woman who ruined Shakespeare's life. She works with the same evidence and presents her arguments using the same logic, so if anybody wants to tear her apart for it, they can't do so without admitting that what we know of Shakespeare biography as well sits on the same weak foundation.

Can we talk about Chapter 2 for a second? Let me summarize chapter 2: "Hey Shakespeare, your mom sucked."

I'm not kidding, even in the slightest. Start with the premise that "misogynist tradition" will bestow upon the mother all the qualities that the wife lacks, therefore Mary Arden must have been smart and beautiful and all these wonderful things. Greer then systematically tears her apart - she had no claim to the famous Arden name, she was spoiled rotten, she made no attempt to find wives for her children, and if she was at all a good wife, Shakespeare's dad would never have run the business into the ground and ruined his life. I can't remember now without looking back but I'm sure she threw in a couple of "Yo momma's so ugly" jokes as well, just to prove her point. The chapter ends with a laundry list of Shakespeare's bad mother characters, including "the cannibal Tamora" (ummm..does unwittingly being fed human flesh make you a cannibal?), "the depraved Gertrude" (I guess women shouldn't ever remarry after their husband dies), and, my favorite....Lady Macbeth. Did I miss a couple of little Macbeths running around that play?

And then there's Greenblatt. I toyed for a long time with how to properly describe his place in the book. I was going to say that the original working title was "Shakespeare's Wife : Or, Stephen Greenblatt Can Just Go Bite Me." Then I was going to say that I could imagine Ms. Greer reading Greenblatt's Will In the World with an indignant gasp and an "Oh no he *didn't*!" exclamation every other page. Instead I think the best description comes from Alan K. Farrar, who never references Greer without adding (bbke) after her name, like some type of blessing (he's told us that the bb is in fact for "blessed be"). I've decided that, in Greer world, I will imagine her doing a similar thing for Greenblatt. Only the letters will be (sob) (That's "son-of-a-b*tch", in case I'm being a little too subtle for folks). The book is far more amusing if you imagine the author sticking a pin in a voodoo doll every time she mentions his name. (The really annoying thing about this whole issue is that when I read Greenblatt's book it was very plain to me that this was Greenblatt's own personal fantasy about how he wished Shakespeare's life had gone. I never for a second thought of any of it as remotely defensible.)

In the end I guess this book comes with too much baggage for me to fully appreciate and/or enjoy it. Is it intended to be a serious biography, or an ironic attack on all the other Shakespeare biographies? If I were to ever cite Greer in mixed company (and by that I mean mixed company of Shakespeare scholars, naturally) would I be laughed out of the club? She's so busy pointing out how much of a right bastard Greenblatt and his ilk are (she's got some choice words for Anthony Burgess as well, though I can't say I've ever read anything of his that wasn't fiction....) that I found myself rolling my eyes every time another attack came up. It was like reading the transcript from a political rally. "Well, here's why my opponent's an idiot....blah blah blah nothing to back up my own case, just bunches and bunches of reasons why his case stinks."

There are those not embroiled in controversy who just want to learn more about the couple, and I think for that audience, this book does offer some value. Take my wife, for instance. She's the sort who bonds with others at the family level. You could put up a picture of a random celebrity on television, announce that she's pregnant, and watch as my wife's ears perked up, followed by "Who is that? Who's she married to? Do they have any other children?" It interests her. The same is true of Shakespeare. She has asked me what Shakespeare's married life was like. In particular, did he love his wife? After all, the man wrote some pretty romantic stuff. I hate to say "I don't know", or worse, "The circumstances seem to suggest they were pretty unhappy." To a romantic like my wife, the idea that Shakespeare loathed his own wife and wrote to escape his situation, rather than to praise it, makes the whole thing a pretty sad story. I'm happy at least to say that Greer paints a very positive picture of Shakespeare's relationship with his wife. So if you could care less about what the misogynist tradition has to say on the subject, and just want a little bit of a more positive spin on what their marriage might have been like, there are bits in here for you to enjoy (provided that you learn to skim past the attacks on Greenblatt and crew).

4 comments:

Craig said...

You know, I haven't paid much attention to this book, although Imight pick it up someday just for the social history. Haven't read Greenblatt, either. I think Bryson's recent book is just about all the Shakespeare biography we need, or can really defend, unless his diaries turn up at auction. The odd thing to me, on reading your impressions, is the idea that the unhappiness of the marriage (if it was, in fact, unhappy) would be laid at Anne's feet. If that's the "misogynist tradition," I've stayed far enough away from Shakespeare biography to have avioded it thus far. As the "unhappy marriage" argument goes, she was older and busy with the kids in sleepy Stratford, and Shakespeare ran off to London to live the wild life. Who's reaction to that is "what did that woman do to him?" It's certainly not my reaction when I hear about a similar thing happening today. (The closest thing in the plays to that situation would be All's Well that Ends Well--a hurdle for people who want to read Shakespeare's dramatic work as biography.)

Craig said...

Oh, and I had to comment on the "laundry list of Shakespeare's bad mother characters," which seems like a gratiutous indulgence in the "plays as autobiography" line. Gertrude? Tamora? Let's talk about some of the fathers in Shakespeare: Lord Capulet ("hang, beg, starve, die in the streets!"), Leontes (child left to die in the wilderness), Henry VI (disinherited his son). That list sounds like fishing for facts to fit a thesis.

Lady Macbeth, by the way, had a son from a prior marriage in history (and in Hollinshed). It's possible Shakespeare had that in mind. Or it might just be a loose end. In either event, Lady Macbeth's "bad motherhood" only extends as far as _claiming_ she'd be willing to kill her own child, not actually doing anything...and Lady Macbeth is a big talker.

Alan K.Farrar said...

Not as bad as it could have been!

The only thing I'll add is the question of how 'we' are influenced by presumed biography without knowing it - I guarantee you'll find it hard to read/watch some of the early comedies (and the 'notes' if you were foolish enough to have an Arden) without thinking back on a very different world to the one assumed by the male interpretations and note-makers.

We can't watch a Shakespeare play without having a sense of 'another world' - our knowledge of the 'Merry England Elizabethan' does have an impact on how we interpret the play - the beauty of this book for me is the widening of that knowledge - and the very different perspective on what is a major theme in Shakespeare's works - love, marriage and gender relationships.

I defy you (which means you'll do it to spite me anyway) to read the 'Let me not to the marriage of true minds' sonnet knowing Shakespeare loved Ann and not think it is about his seperation from her ...

(And a great verification today:

artjts)

(By the way, the review is good - but I'm not going to admit it.)

william s said...

Excellent review; lol good. I saw Germaine on the Amsterdam leg of her book-selling tour.

She mentioned how she and Greenblatt studied together and went their separate feminist and new historicist ways.

They are in NYC at the same time either in May or June I think.

Yes there is an element of satire in Germaine's 'wife', also a commentary on the biography of her better-accounted-for hubby.

She could maybe do her next book on his brother Gilbert the haberdasher in London, never married, probably very good with a needle thanks to the glovemaker's upbringing.

A little stressed fact in the Hathaway saga is that Will's dad lent her dad some money when he'd have been about 8/9 and she 15/16.

I find the book fits as an exploration of domestic life in Early Modern England but Germaine is really punching out at the scholarly establishment with this one.

It's doubly funny because i thought her biography entitled Shakespeare one of the sanest and most succinct accounts.

And as for Mary. What does Germaine think of her mum?