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Shakespeare's Wife


Image: Wall Street Journal, Granger Collection

"In the history books, William Shakespeare's wife, Ann Hathaway, is often portrayed as homely yet promiscuous, a 26-year-old harridan who trapped innocent 18-year-old William Shakespeare into marriage by getting pregnant. Yet almost nothing is actually known about her."

Gazing at the portrait that is supposed to depict Ann Hathaway, I can imagine this Ann falling in love with a man who clearly loved and respected women. And I can see why Germaine Greer wanted to write a book about her -Shakespeare's Wife, which has just been published to the outrage of some critics.

The marriage to Shakespeare left Ann with three children to raise and Will drawn by his genius to the London stage and the creative possibilities of life in London. We cannot always help whom we love.

I can imagine Ann staying in the town she knew, where her family lived and where she could make a living. Unlike London the country was a good place to raise her children.

Contradicting many scholars, and even this simple narrative of separation, Greer thinks there is evidence that Will and Ann had "a good and loving marriage". Whether this is true, reviewers say that Greer has painted a meticulously detailed picture of the life that Ann Hathaway lived in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World, does not think their marriage was happy - "Some of the most beautiful love poems in the English language, but none written to your wife. A long career of living apart. . .Plays that seem to imagine every conceivable relationship except a happy, intimate, long-term marriage"?

Still there are many plays that look forward to a happy marriage - the Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, All's Well That Ends Well - and one play that asks forgiveness from a wife. One of Shakespeare's last plays, The Winter's Tale, depicts early happiness, self-destruction, and happy re-creation with the repentance and reunion of a man and wife, joined by a beloved daughter.

Ann and Shakespeare did have a much-loved daughter to whom he left two-thirds of his estate. By law Ann inherited one-third, and by his will she also received the "second-hand bed", which some think was an insult, but Greer believes was the matrimonial bed, and rich in memory.

Greer also believes that Ann paid for her husband's plays to be printed after his death.