"I think he was a genius and geniuses are tricky to live with…But I think a man who hates his wife and doesn't dare leave her is all kind of a creep." That's Germaine Greer in a podcast on her (by most accounts successful) quest to prove the conventional wisdom that if Shakespeare really was Shakespeare his wife was a horrible idiot he hated is a groundless notion rooted primarily in sloppiness and chauvinism. (Here's an excerpt.) I don't really have my own opinion re the matter, but it's totally cute how she frames her book, Shakespeare's Wife, as a simple attempt to clear the name of her imaginary boyfriend. [Wash Post]
I never, in a million years, thought I would be defending Germaine Greer. I mean, I've always thought of her as a kind of public harpy-for-hire, a talking head willing to yap endlessly on any given topic. In short, a professional bore.
But I read Shakespeare's Wife, and fuck me if it isn't really very good. No, seriously. No, seriously.
First of all, the scholarship is really very impressive. Greer has done her research, and done it well. Unlike Bill Bryson's sad, soggy attempt at Shakespearian biography last year, and any of the countless others that seem to crop up with exhausting regularity, this one actually breaks new ground. Greer has gone back through vast, vast reams of primary sources to winkle out some really fine new nuggets of information. So while Greer can be an intellectual lightweight on any number of subjects, she is far from flimsy here. This is really good, chewy stuff.
Secondly, Greer acknowledges that we have only a handful of facts about William Shakespeare, and even less than that about his wife. Unlike other biographical historians, she does not pretend that we know more than we do. What she does argue is that if all biographies of Shakespeare (or his wife) are necessarily works of educated imagination, why not try seeing your subject through a different lens? Why not focus on the quieter, mundane, forgotten parts of Shakespeare's life, away from the heaving city, and see if anything interesting comes up? Why not focus on Anne Hathaway (whose name, we learn, wasn't even Anne), that dusty, neglected figure forever consigned to the attics of traditional Bardology. Why not blow the dust off her and her be a real, breathing, thinking human being?
You can certainly dispute some of Greer's conclusions (I know I do), but this work has some seriously impressive academic chops. What's more, it's interesting. It's definitely, definitely worth a read.