A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mr. and Mrs. Shakespeare

The following review is an expanded version of one that ran today in the Dallas Morning News:

SHAKESPEARE’S WIFE
By Germaine Greer
HarperCollins, 416 pp., $26.95

The little we know for certain about the private life of William Shakespeare could fit in a slender file folder: records of birth and marriage and death, a few other documents mostly pertaining to real estate transactions and some legal matters, some evidence of his work with various theatrical companies, a handful of mentions by his contemporaries, and the like. But we have the plays and poems, too, and from that has been spun the vast web of maybes and perhapses that constitutes Shakespeare biography.

We know even less about his wife, Ann (or Anne or even Agnes) Hathaway Shakespeare. We do know that she was born in 1556 and died in 1623 (outliving him by seven years), that they married in 1582, when she was 26 and he was 18, and that their first child, Susanna, was born six months after the wedding. They had two more children, the twins Hamnet and Judith, in 1585. And that’s pretty much it for Ann, except that in his will, Shakespeare left her his “second-best bed.”

But if countless volumes can be got out of the little we know about William’s life, it’s not really surprising that Germaine Greer can get 400 pages out of Ann’s. Greer is best known – at least on this side of the Atlantic – for her 1970 book The Female Eunuch, a key text in the foundation of the women’s movement of the ’70s. British tabloid readers and TV-watchers know Greer as colorful and uninhibited. (The role of the public intellectual in Britain is evidently very different from that of the American equivalent. Greer appeared on a celebrity edition of the British version of “Big Brother.” Try to imagine John Updike on “Survivor.”) But her persona is anything but flamboyant in this new book, which is a sober, fact-laden attempt to figure out what the life of Mrs. Shakespeare must have been like.

This is not to say that Shakespeare’s Wife lacks controversy. Greer’s target is what she sees as the sexism of scholars who assume that Ann was more of an impediment than a helpmeet to Shakespeare. Scholars (mostly male) have conjectured that Shakespeare was trapped in a marriage to a woman he didn’t love. They cite the disparity in ages between William and Ann, the inference that she was pregnant when they wed, their prolonged separation when he went off to London to make it big and apparently left her in Stratford – three days’ journey away – to take care of the kids. And then there’s that dismissive-sounding bequest.

Greer’s chief target is Stephen Greenblatt, whose 2004 Shakespeare biography, Will in the World, was a bestseller. To paint her very different portrait of the Shakespeare marriage, she uses some of Greenblatt’s own history-scouring techniques, digging deep into the minute details of Elizabethan daily life. Maybe Ann wasn’t a conniving hussy who trapped a mere boy into marriage, she proposes. And maybe consummation of the marriage before the wedding ceremony was commonly accepted, maybe they weren’t separated as long or as often as is usually thought, and maybe Shakespeare didn’t leave her much in the will because he didn’t have to – she was already entitled to her share of the estate. She may well have been a capable businesswoman, supporting the family on her own while he was away. And that bed could have had both sentimental and monetary value.

The one thing Greer doesn’t do is rely heavily on the poems and plays for evidence. She does touch lightly on passages in the plays that reinforce evidence she has found elsewhere, and she dismisses the sonnets – with their implications of the poet’s affairs both gay and straight – as mostly conventional, except when she finds evidence of marital affection in them. She doesn’t even expound on marital themes in the plays, such as the jealous husband/innocent wife motif found in tragedy (Othello), comedy (The Merry Wives of Windsor) and romance (A Winter’s Tale).

What she does give us in her account of the life led by women in Elizabethan Stratford-upon-Avon, is sometimes fascinating. And sometimes it’s tedious and tendentious. There’s a long and mostly irrelevant description of what the medical practice of John Hall, the husband of Ann and William’s daughter Susanna, must have been like. And an equally detailed account of the conflict in Stratford over the enclosure of land once held in common, in which Greer suggests Ann and her daughters might have taken part – and then admits “perhaps none of them” did. And there’s a gruesome section on syphilis and its treatment, all in service of the possibility that William might have contracted it in the brothels of London.

The result is a bit of a jumble of a book. There are flashes of insight, and the suggestion that Ann may not have been such a burden to her husband as some have argued is a sensible one. But a barrage of facts about everything from childbirth in Elizabethan times to the making of ale to the price of land doesn’t constitute a full portrait of Shakespeare’s wife, or add very much to our understanding of his art.

In the end, on almost all questions, Greer is content to leave the conclusions up to the reader: “If Ann Shakespeare had both skill and business acumen, she could have become a wealthy woman in her own right. So far we don’t know that she did, but we don’t know that she didn’t either.” That admission, almost an authorial shrug of the shoulders, comes halfway through the book. Which may be as far as some readers get.

Since Greer makes much of Stephen Greenblatt's portrait of the Shakespeare marriage, here's my review of his book, which ran in the Mercury News in 2004:

WILL IN THE WORLD: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
By Stephen Greenblatt
Norton, 406 pp., $26.95

Perhaps. Probably. Maybe. These words hiccup through any biography of Shakespeare, and Stephen Greenblatt's is no exception. For the facts about Shakespeare's life are, as Greenblatt puts it, ''abundant but thin.'' We know all sorts of stuff about the property he bought and sold, the taxes he paid, the theatrical companies he worked for. We have his baptismal record, his marriage license and his last will and testament.

What we don't have are letters, diaries, manuscripts or anything that would give us, in Greenblatt's words, ''direct access to his thoughts about politics or religion or art.'' We want the People magazine profile, the Terry Gross interview, the ''E! True Elizabethan Story.''

But we're not going to get them, so let's be happy with the perhapses supplied by Greenblatt, a professor of humanities at Harvard. His new book, Will in the World, manages to be what a popular biography written by a noted scholar should be: readable but learned, speculative but carefully documented.

As his title suggests, Greenblatt draws his probabilities not only from the documents and the poems and plays, but also from the world Shakespeare lived in. Greenblatt imagines an 11-year-old dazzled by the pageantry surrounding the queen, who stayed at Kenilworth, 12 miles from Stratford, in 1575 -- awakening a fascination with English history and the glamour of royalty. He posits that Shakespeare was obsessed by his father's business failure, which happened when the poet was 13, and that it echoes in the theme of banishment and loss of status found in plays like As You Like It, King Lear and The Tempest.

He sees 18-year-old Will marrying 26-year-old Anne Hathaway six months before their first child was born, and speculates that the marriage was an unhappy one, reflected in the exhortations against premarital sex and skepticism about marriage found in the plays. The only married couples in the plays who have ''a relationship of sustained intimacy,'' Greenblatt notes, ''are unnervingly strange: Gertrude and Claudius in Hamlet and the Macbeths. These marriages are powerful, in their distinct ways, but they are also upsetting, even terrifying, in their glimpses of genuine intimacy.''

But we don't really know if an unhappy marriage prompted Shakespeare to seek his fortune in London, which was two days' ride from Stratford, where his wife and three children remained. He probably did them a favor by not taking them with him: The London in which he spent much of his adult life was a city of 200,000 people -- in Europe, only Naples and Paris were larger -- but even in years when the city was spared from the plague, the death rate was higher than the birth rate.

And when disease wasn't killing people, Queen Elizabeth was. The heads of traitors were stuck on poles on the Great Stone Gate leading to London Bridge. ''A foreign visitor to London in 1592 counted thirty-four of them,'' Greenblatt writes. Many of those convicted of treason were Roman Catholics, which may have made Shakespeare uneasy, since there's evidence that his own father covertly adhered to the faith that Elizabeth was determined to wipe out.

Greenblatt believes that the political and religious tensions of the age taught Shakespeare some ''powerful lessons about danger and the need for discretion, concealment, and fiction.'' The heads on the bridge, Greenblatt writes, ''may have spoken to him on the day he entered London -- and he may well have heeded their warning'' -- a warning to be cautious and sly. And this may explain not only why we have so little documentation of Shakespeare's own beliefs, but also why his plays -- and even the sonnets, his most apparently personal work -- are so complex, so subtle, so ambiguous.

Unlike some biographers, Greenblatt doesn't rely too heavily on the sonnets for clues. He accepts that the Earl of Southampton is the ''likeliest candidate by far'' as the young man addressed in the poems, but he calls the efforts to name the other figures -- the Dark Lady, the Rival Poet -- ''beyond rashness.'' He's also cautious about speculating whether the intimate way the poet addresses the young man indicates that Shakespeare was gay. Sonnet-writing, Greenblatt says, was a kind of game, the point of which ''was to sound as intimate, self-revealing, and emotionally vulnerable as possible, without actually disclosing anything compromising to anyone outside the innermost circle.'' And Shakespeare played that game better than anyone.

Most of all, Greenblatt gives us what he calls ''an amazing success story,'' that of a bright young man from the provinces who took on the challenge of working amid playwrights better-educated than he was -- and won. There was the brilliant but unstable Christopher Marlowe, whose Tamburlaine inspired Shakespeare to his first success, the Henry VI trilogy. There were the university-educated playwrights who gathered around the corpulent and dissolute Robert Greene, who attacked Shakespeare in print as an ''upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers.''

Shakespeare far outdid these rivals, even transforming the unsavory Greene into one of his most beloved characters, Falstaff. ''What Falstaff helps to reveal is that for Shakespeare, Greene was a sleazy parasite, but he was also a grotesque titan,'' Greenblatt says.

By the time we reach the mature works, the biographical mysteries recede, as Greenblatt explores Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, The Tempest and other plays not only for what they tell us about Shakespeare, but also for what Shakespeare and his world tell us about the plays.

Which is as it should be. The biographical mysteries are really less interesting than the artistic mysteries: the melancholy wit of Twelfth Night, the erotic entanglements of Antony and Cleopatra, the power maneuvers of the history plays, the bittersweet magic of the late romances, the rootless malevolence of Iago, the airy dazzle of Rosalind, the stubborn humanity of Bottom, and so on -- not forgetting all those well-shaped words.

Fortunately, Greenblatt never forgets that the works are uppermost. He has given us a clever and alive book, one that makes us makes us return to Shakespeare's work with a fresh vision, and one that finds a living person in the mass of dry documents and the heaps of conjecture. Scholars may quibble about the way Greenblatt reads the facts -- it's their job to do so -- but I felt a little closer to knowing the unknowable Shakespeare than I did before I read the book.