Sunday, 21 November 2010

Review: Shakespeare's Wife, Germaine Greer (2007)

The number of scholars who can get their monographs situated on the biography shelf of a middle-high-brow independent bookshop is probably calculable using the fingers of one hand. Simon Schama springs to mind (so that's two). Hmm ... Let's see ... Nope, there ain't nuthun' that's springing forth in my dismal mind right now, friends. Which makes Greer an oddity, but we should not dismiss her new book on that account, even though she takes on a long string of (what she calls, hilariously) "bardolators", or stubbornly refuse to unpack the coinage: it refers to those scholars and historians who, in order to praise their favourite Renaissance author (and probably the most famous author of all time in any country), must disparage his wife.

Greer, who made her name as a feminist polemicist, undoubtedly sees a form of elite-level sexism at work in the equation. She may be right. What is disturbing is that noone has ever publicly attempted to systematically dissect the bardolators' biases by doggedly returning to the records of Stratford and nearby towns, and of London, in search of any proof. That's the problem, she thinks. These middle-aged white guys just built on an assumption made early in the history of Shakespeare writing (and it's got a long history, starting in the early 17th century), and elaborated on it in the absence of any information to the contrary. It's a clear case of how a monoculture (white, middle-aged guys) can distort the record and bring forth deformed progeny.

Many people will find Greer's book puzzling, if not overwhelming. This is due to its density. The sheer volume of facts plucked, like live eels, and stuffed into the literary confection one holds in one's hands, will make some readers squirm. Many will plug on out of solidarity with the author. Others will simply revel in the copious trove of new information that gives substance to a far-off time, and pocket Greer's stated conclusions as viable coin to be used in the marketplace of ideas we all inhabit.

For myself, the book has additional usefulness as my earliest-known ancestor (a certain Thomas Caldicott) had a son, Thomas, who became a husbandman and was buried in Warwickshire, the county in which Ann and William were brought up and where Ann lived. There is an estate named Caldicott in Greer's book which was owned by one of the powerful Greville clan. The Grevilles don't come out of the book looking very wise or very nice at all. As a husbandman, however, Thomas Caldicott (fils) may have been well-off, and Greer's book tells me much about what was happening in the mid-Renaissance in England in terms of the economy which was, of course, still largely based on agriculture. Thomas may even have been involved in the extensive "enclosures" of land that took place at the time, when profit-hungry landowning gentry fenced off areas traditionally used by the wider community for pasturage, a practice that sometimes led to bloodshed, if not at least civil conflict.

Ann Shakespeare would have led a productive and useful life in her household, regardless of what her husband's post-mortal groupies inferred from the slim file of reliable records that still exist. Greer does a lot of hard work by combing through a wide array of records from the time and performing a type of literary triangulation, in some cases where nothing concrete still exists, in order to prove her points. Ann was clearly beloved and may have been the subject of some of Shakespeare's sonnets. She was faithful and diligent in her homemaking, raising two children to adulthood at a time when so many children died, as her son Hamnet did, before puberty. She kept the home fires burning while William was away in London or else touring around the countryside with the Kings Men, his theatrical troupe. She deserves our esteem.

You get the feeling that the bardolators have simply dropped the ball. That Greer has been equal to the task, one that to most would be utterly daunting, of assembling convincing evidence to support Ann Shakespeare's claim on our regard is proof, is any were needed, of the depth of feeling involved in the case. Greer must have gnashed her teeth often, over the half-century or so during which she has studied the works of William Shakespeare, as she discovered each case of the intellectual crime of bardolatry. Why, one is forced to ask, is it necessary to seek to raise one person up by putting another down? Surely William would have disapproved?

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