Invisibility is no protection for the wives of great men. In fact, the more self-effacing the women are, the more they tend to be maligned. Socrates's wife Xanthippe is always portrayed as a shrew, yet all we know about the poor woman is that the philosopher briskly sent her packing — along with their three soon-to-be-bereft children — before he lifted the hemlock to his lips. No fond farewells for him! We know precious little about Shakespeare, but even less about Ann Hathaway, his wife; this hasn't prevented biographers from portraying her as the cold and scheming seductress of a bumpkin of genius.
When they married, late in 1582, Shakespeare was only 18, while Ann was 26. To make matters worse, she was four months pregnant. Was this union, as some scholars have supposed, a shotgun marriage, prompted, as one of them put it, by a single "roll in the hay"? That seems unlikely: The marriage lasted for some 34 years. Of course, it could have been a long, bad marriage; Shakespeare did, after all, spend some 25 years, off and on, in London while Ann remained in Stratford. But in fact, we just don't know. Even so, scholars have consistently cast Ann in a bad light; her side is never heard. Isn't being married to a genius punishment enough, without the added burden of a shrewish reputation?
Now, in "Shakespeare's Wife" (HarperCollins, 416 pages, $26.95), the critic Germaine Greer offers a learned and often quite caustic correction to this biased view of Ann Hathaway. In the process she steadily unravels the cloak of invisibility which has hidden the living woman from our eyes. Her portrayal is unavoidably conjectural and at times far-fetched. But in trying to fill what she aptly calls the "wife-shaped void" in Shakespeare's life, she draws on wills and contracts, street ballads and kitchen ditties, parish registers and court records. She is quick to find allusions in his plays and poems, and those of his contemporaries, which illumine married life and the lives of women in Elizabethan times.
Because women's domestic responsibilities in that era, from cheese-making to midwifery, were both routine and specific — and so well-documented — Ms. Greer is able to provide a credible sense of what it must have been like for Ann to manage a household, raise three children (and bury one of them), and provide a livelihood for her family. She accomplished this largely in the absence of her husband; even when their young son Hamnet died in 1596, Shakespeare, who was then on tour with a troupe of actors, did not attend the funeral. Still, social history can only go so far. Ms. Greer is able to show what sort of woman Ann Hathaway may have been — capable, independent of mind, tough, and resourceful — but even she cannot conjure up her unmistakable features, those particular quirks and foibles and graces that made her who she was.
Ms. Greer knows, of course, that no individual portrait of Ann Hathaway is possible; most of the details of her life are lost to us forever. But the absence of documented fact doesn't justify the wild — and often blatantly misogynistic — inferences which many Shakespeareans have drawn about the poet's wife. Ms. Greer is quite splendid in skewering the most outrageous of these inferences. She is no respecter of persons; the novelist Anthony Burgess comes in for a sound, and well-deserved, drubbing for some especially odious suppositions, as does the eminent scholar Stephen Greenblatt, some of whose sillier pronouncements Ms. Greer delights in holding up for appalled inspection. Her pages positively crackle with polemic, as witty as it is scathing.
Again and again, she sets the record straight. The fact that Ann was older means nothing; at the time, younger men often tended to woo older women, so much so that it became a literary motif. (In "Venus and Adonis," his only best seller, Shakespeare himself played with the theme.) Shakespeare's father had recently suffered catastrophic financial reverses and was forced to hide from his creditors. The Hathaways, a relatively prosperous clan, wouldn't have viewed marriage to one of the bankrupt and bedraggled Shakespeares as very promising. More tellingly, unmarried women such as Ann enjoyed considerable independence; they controlled their own assets until marriage — in real terms, Ann had more to lose than to gain from the marriage.
There remains the matter of the notorious "second-best bed" which Shakespeare left to Ann in his will. This bequest seems grudging at best, contemptuous at worst. But as Ms. Greer notes, a bed represented a substantial legacy at the time: A modest bed had the same value as a cow, a sumptuous bed was worth as much as a cottage. Furthermore, Shakespeare doesn't seem to have been lavish in the other provisions of his will; even his more substantial bequest to his daughter Judith is hedged about with niggling restrictions. "The most eloquent Englishman who ever lived," as Ms. Greer rightly describes him, seems to have been something of a Scrooge at the end. But to read contempt into his bequest to Ann of the "second-best bed" (the best was reserved for guests) may be unwarranted. It could have been a legacy of affection as well, the coded bequest which only a loving wife would understand, the solid symbol of a lasting bond. In 1601, 15 years before his death, Shakespeare published his allegorical poem "The Phoenix and the Turtle." There he speaks of "hearts remote yet not asunder." The line is as charged, and as mysterious, as marriage itself.