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The wife, the bard and their bed

After nearly four centuries of calumny, Ann Hathaway is redeemed by Germaine Greer

BRIAN BETHUNE April 14 2008
THE BACK PAGES

The wife, the bard and their bed

After nearly four centuries of calumny, Ann Hathaway is redeemed by Germaine Greer

BRIAN BETHUNE April 14 2008

The wife, the bard and their bed

After nearly four centuries of calumny, Ann Hathaway is redeemed by Germaine Greer

If it’s true, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, that all biography is actually autobiography, then perhaps William Shakespeare’s legion of biographers—at least the male ones—were an unhappily married lot. The bard’s wife, Ann Hathaway, has endured a ceaseless stream of slurs—old, ugly and shrewish being only the most commonless noteworthy for their nastiness than their flimsy basis. It’s taken almost 400 years for Ann to find a champion, but now, in a nearperfect match of writer and subject, Germaine Greer gives Hathaway her due in Shakespeare’s Wife (McClelland & Stewart). Greer in high dudgeon is always a lively read; when her cause is just, as it is here, and the targets so fatly inviting, the result is a pleasure.

What a collection of pompous idiocies she finds to deflate. Ann was eight years older than Will when they wed, and pregnant to boot. The first fact has convicted her of ugliness in the minds of many: biographer Anthony Holden can scarcely believe that Will, “the ambitious young dreamer,” would have willingly married “a homely wench eight years his senior”; the film Shakespeare in Love has the bard justify abandoning Hathaway by complaining his wife was “a woman half as old again” as he. (That made her all of 26 at their wedding, not exactly a crone’s age, even in Elizabethan England.) The pregnancy, of course, is the true trump card in painting Hathaway as a conniving tramp. Sir Sydney Lee, who wrote an influential life of Shakespeare a century ago, and who was quite happy, as Greer waspishly puts it, “to invent what he did not know” about 16th-century marriage law, stated that Will’s parents were likely opposed to the shotgun match, and may even not have known of it beforehand.

Greer, 69, who in her day job is an academic expert in early modern English literature, waded through a mountain of poetry, plays, local court records and Tudor history. She knows what she’s talking about: none of the above is provable. Often the balance of probabilities points in the opposite direction. It would have been illegal, for instance, for an 18-year-old minor like Will to have a church wedding without parental permission.

Nor do we know anything whatsoever about Ann’s appearance, though Sonnet 145 does seem to speak of her nature—and of a love match. Even Hathaway’s worst disparagers admit that the last two lines show the poem was addressed to her: ‘I hate’from hate away she threw/And saved my life, saying ‘notyou. ’ “Hate away” is read as “Hathaway” and, in Elizabethan pronunciation, “And saved my life” would have sounded exactly like “Ann saved my life.” True, the poem says nothing of her outer beauty. As for its theme, that she resisted his advances, why not? It was Ann who had arrived at the usual marrying age for the era, Ann who was the catch—a farmer’s daughter with a decent dowry, she’d have had no shortage of suitors were she ugly as sin—not the glove-maker’s son whose father had taken to refusing to leave his house for fear of being sent to debtors’ prison.

Greer is not interested in switching the

labels of seducer and victim. What is so impossible, she asks, about the idea the couple were in love? It’s a question that also illuminates the pregnancy issue. In law, all a couple required for a valid marriage was an exchange of vows—church blessing and parental wishes notwithstanding. At what point Will and Ann exchanged those words is unknown. Perhaps not until the wedding, perhaps long before. Many couples did just that: church records are stuffed full of baptisms registered six months or less after the parents’ weddings.

That leaves Greer, and her readers, with literary history’s most famous bed: the “second-best” one Shakespeare left his widow in his will. For Stephen Greenblatt, whose Will in the World was a massive bestseller in 2004, the bequest was an insult born of the bard’s “ineradicable distaste” for his wife, a gesture to say Will had found “his best bed elsewhere.” But beds were extremely valuable, Greer points out, often worth as much as a small house. They frequently appeared in contemporary wills, bestowed as a mark of affection. Often it was the second-best that was given a widow because that was the actual marriage bed. (The best was reserved for guests.) Considering Will had come home—to Stratford, to Ann—when he retired from the theatre, the bequest may have been a gesture to his “oldest, truest love.” That’s probably stretching things, as even Greer admits, but it’s surely time Ann Hathaway had her turn as the beneficiary of biographers’ fantasies. M

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BRIAN BETHUNE