Ann Shakespeare, née Hathaway, died in 1623, seven years after her husband, and was probably born in 1556, eight years before him. As Germaine Greer rightly points out, she tends to get short shrift from her husband’s admirers, most of whom see her as an inconvenient detail of the Bard’s early life, operating in a different universe to the London theatre world. Greer pulls apart this casual sexism, using the documentary evidence combined with her own instincts, and tells rather a good story firmly moored in the social history of Stratford-upon-Avon – the decaying Shakespeares and the more prosperous Hathaway clan; the struggles between the local council and the psychopathic landlord; the destruction of most of the town several times over by accidental fire. She points out that the oddest thing about the Shakespeares’ marriage is the fact that William was so young (not Ann’s pregnancy, which was par for the course), and then goes on to point out several romantic heroes in Shakespeare’s works who are explicitly younger than the women they love. She makes a good case that several of the sonnets (beyond 145, which is fairly obvious) are addressed to Ann – and asks, why should that be such an outrageous idea?
Of course, there isn’t a lot of documentary evidence to go on, but on the whole Greer resists the temptation of straying too far into fantasy, apart from one chapter on Ann’s totally fictional career making clothes, and a half chapter on her husband’s equally unproven slow lingering death from syphilis. She also casts, to my mind, unnecessary doubts on the authenticity of the most concrete single object relating to Shakespeare which survives, namely his monument. But the whole thing is done with Greer’s characteristic verve – her academic background, after all, is as a Shakespeare scholar, and in this book she combines passion and profundity.