Sunday, 23 March 2008

An honest Wit(ness)

Above all other things, Germaine Greer (bbke) is Witty.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a biography before where the knowledgeable smile of the author has been so evident – and, if there is any truth in the idea of all biography being covert auto-biography, forget the Mona Lisa, Anne Hathaway has now had ‘the face job’.

Does anyone else understand the Shakespearean (strictly Elizabethan) idea of worldly illusion – and apply it – as Ms Greer (bbke) does? I think not.

Totus Mundus Agit Histrionem.

Our intrepid author, perversely, writes not of The Author, but of His shackle, ‘her indoors’.

This, in itself, should send a shiver of dread through the bones of the bardolating – what is the woman up to? Everyone knows what a ‘Shrew’ the witch of Stratford was – how she first tricked Him into marrying her, then drove Him from home; how He had to seek comfort in the stews of London and how He got His revenge by drinking Himself to death and leaving her nothing in His will!

Dare this exiled, antipodean troublemaker challenge that?

Well, yes, she dare. And with good reasons – in multitude.

Almost without exception, those biographers of Shakespeare who deal with his wife and family seem to groundlessly condemn her. What evidence there is, is almost unintelligible in modern times and needs filtering through the eyes of the Elizabethan/Jacobean – and more specifically through the eyes of an Elizabethan/Jacobean in Stratford.

This is precisely what Ms Greer(bbke) does – gives the perspective of Stratford and the times. The factual details not only of Shakespeare’s wife and family are given – but also the context of what else is happening in Stratford when they live there.

Three times in Ann Shakespeare (nee Hathaway)’s lifetime significant parts of Stratford burnt down: Mini-fire-of-London events that had dire consequences for the town’s economy and for Shakespeare’s family.

The idyll of a quiet, prosperous, country backwater does not fit the cataclysm of such events (or of the near riots and murders also documented in the book) – events that make the purchase price of buildings like New Place quite reasonable – and well within the reach of a not too prosperous playwright’s wife.

And strong evidence is given of the independent nature of many women in the town – women who leant money out at 10% interest, made a reasonable income by malting and other industries (frequently credited incorrectly to their husbands) – and women who supervised the restoration of houses when their husbands were absent.

Greer (bbke) makes few claims to certainty – indeed, her most certain claim is of the uncertainty of the material (a claim not all biographers of Shakespeare have taken to heart). Frequently you are given more than one possibility as to events – possibly this, possibly that - only to be told, as a parting shot – and possibly neither.

Shakespeare’s death is one such case.

If the William had contracted venereal disease then …. (and it would make sense of the doggerel verse in the church about not moving the bones).

However, he might also have had cancer, in which case ….. (and the known facts fit this too).

But we do not have enough evidence for either to be certain – or for other possible explanations.

This is how the biography is constructed throughout – like Shakespeare, Ms Greer (bbke) gives us more than one possible answer to the questions she raises – and leaves us to make up our minds.

Sometimes she goes as far as to say, ‘If, as I think, Ann …’ But that is it.

What she does give short shrift to (and rightly so) is the idiocy of certain (male) biographers who presume too much on little or no evidence. Shakespeare’s presence at family funerals is one such presumption – based more on wish fulfilment than any evidence.

Another revolutionary challenge to conventional wisdom Ms Greer (bbke) makes (absurd claim she labels it – tongue firmly in cheek) is that the only reason we even have so much Shakespeare text is Ann’s devotion to her husband – it could well have been her doing, The Folio – she might have paid for its printing (or rather underwrote the inevitable loss), just before she died. In theatrical terms this makes her an Angel – and a very different person from the harridan portrayed by the men.

Which brings me nicely back to the link between the biographer and her subject …

If Shakespeare has a modern Angel – it is Ms Greer: Make no mistake, Shakespeare’s wife is the subject of the biography – but de-bagging some of the scholastic absurdities surround Shakespeare is firmly the aim.

It also does a nice job of restoring the unity and balance of marriage, one of Shakespeare’s most enduring themes.

1 comment:

Clare said...

This book is in my too read pile, hope it's half as entertaining as your review!