Literary historians have not been kind to Ann Shakespeare, n‚e Hathaway. She is painted as old, ugly and desperate, leading poor William astray, trapping him into a loveless marriage at age 18 (she was a ripe 26). Or maybe she was beautiful and sexually experienced and…unfaithful. Perhaps her talented husband hated her — or lived in fear of her. In fact, little is known about William Shakespeare’s wife, the mother of his three children, whom he married in 1582. “All biographies of Shakespeare are houses built of straw, but there is good straw and rotten straw, and some houses are better built than others,” writes feminist icon Germaine Greer in her new book. “The evidence that is always construed to Ann Hathaway’s disadvantage is capable of other, more fruitful interpretations, especially within the context of recent historiography.” Greer attempts to right what she sees as a profound wrong at the hands of the “Shakespeare wallahs” who have remade the Bard “in their own likeness…incapable of relating to women” by undertaking a “systematic review of the evidence against Ann Shakespeare.” Parsing parish and court records, letters, historical materials, and Shakespeare’s own work, she redraws Ann as capable and independent. The portrait may be a complete fantasy, as Greer blithely admits — “If Ann Shakespeare had both skill and business acumen, she could have become a wealthy woman in her own right,” she writes in a typical passage. “So far we don’t know that she did, but we don’t know that she didn’t either.” But though Ann’s image remains hazy, a detailed, compelling picture emerges of what it was like to be a wife and mother in Shakespeare’s time.
About the Writer
Amy Reiter, a former editor and senior writer for Salon, has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, Glamour, Marie Claire, Wine Spectator, and American Journalism Review, among other publications.