Sunday, February 24, 2008

Shakespeare's Wife, by Germaine Greer

Another book that purports to be a Shakespearean biography, this time of Mrs Shakespeare. We know next to zilch about Shakespeare. Of his wife, Ann Hathaway, even less. The most shocking thing we do know about the relationship is that Shakespeare made no provision for his wife in his will. We shouldn’t get our knickers in too much a knot over this though: there may have been provisions made for Mrs Shakespeare outside of the will. Also, we don’t know what some of the customs of the time may have been for the provision of widows.

Germaine Greer I find a difficult writer. I can’t figure out if she’s a charlatan or a very clever woman. British novelist Angela Carter’s description of the Australian feminist has always stuck with me: a clever fool. Greer has a habit of marshalling a massive amount of material, and so we sit back and think, my, isn’t she erudite. But she throws all this colour at her canvas in a haphazard way and you stand back and look at it and think, what a mess. Or rather, yes, you’ve raised some interesting points there Germaine, but what does it mean?

I recently read an article Germaine Greer wrote on the role of Australia’s governor general. The writing leads on to a sort of climax, where you expect some type of revelation, but rather ends with a whimper, a sick joke about Dame Edna becoming the first female governor general.

I’m inclined to think of Greer as some sort of intellectual confidence woman, or trickster. A lot of her thoughts are like useless but fun toys. They amuse momentarily, but don’t sustain.

After that long preamble, let me say I quite enjoyed Shakespeare’s wife. Basically Greer sets out to ‘prove’ (of course we know she can’t do that, so maybe she wants us to rather believe) that Shakespeare did not loathe his wife, as is popularly thought, and may indeed have loved her very much.

Greer also wants us to entertain the possibility that Mrs. Shakespeare could read and write. (Scholars also like to think of Ann Hathaway as a uneducated drudge, good for nothing but bearing children and menial work.)

In many ways, I thought this a beautiful feminist project. As we know nothing about Mrs Shakespeare, the biography of an unknown Elizabethan woman must necessarily be a self portrait of Germaine Gree herself.

And so, the author takes us through the work, life and loves of Elizabethan women, their sufferings and their joys, elevating them out of obscurity and turning them into living and breathing beings.

Thinking about what it must have been like for Mr and Mrs Shakespeare in Elizabethan England is a job that requires imagination, it needs a novelist’s touch and empathy.

Even though Germaine Greer knows little of Ann Hathaway, it is moving how much affection she has for this unknown woman.

No comments: