I haven't read anything by Germaine Greer since I read The Female Eunuch a long time ago, which I thought was interesting, educational, and insightful, but not anything spectacular. This book was along those lines, too. I have taken to avoiding books which have a title which makes a woman an appendage of a man in the title. By this I mean books of the form, "The ________'s Daughter or 'The ________'s Wife, because they're abusive to women. Women deserve better than to be an afterthought!
So why read this one? Well, apart from the fact that I found it to be engaging, well-researched and entertaining (and filling me with ideas!), and while the author had a choice in the title and I would expect a woman with Germaine Greer's credentials to do better than to name it this way, I have to wonder if she deliberately rendered the title in this form because it realistically portrays the reality of the situation disturbingly well.
The sad fact is that the content is forced to relate to Agnes Hathaway in the same way that the title does - as an appendage of someone else rather than a person in her own right precisely because there is so very little history available about the older woman who married Shakespeare and then was practically abandoned for twenty years. Had she not been married to Shakespeare, and had he not become famous, she would probably have been lost to history altogether.
The book is really detailed! Sometimes it's too detailed for me. Yes, it's a welcome addition to see something of what life was really like back then for your average citizen, but on the other hand, we don't need so many details about so many things, with Greer going off on long tangents into displays of how well the author researched the book, rather than displays of what we know or can reasonably deduce about the woman who is central to it. Fortunately this is quite well-balanced by Greer's take on the story as we've all-too-typically had it fed to us: that history is made by men and the little women must of necessity be confined to the sidelines. Well, I call bull's-pizzle on that one!
Greer deftly redirects us, at every reasonable opportunity, to reconsider the standard story and ask: could it possibly have been this way rather than that way (where 'that way' typically demeans and/or impugns Agnes (pronounced Annis, and shortened to Anne)? She very often, but not always makes a strong case for her view. One problem is that Agnes all-too-often is lost under the rain of research details with which Greer pads this book. Less of that and more of the realistic look at what is known and what are reasonable assumptions based on what's known would be welcome, but then we're simply back to how little is known. I think Greer does a sterling job with what's available, but she need not have padded it just because it's available, especially if it had little bearing on what Agnes may or may not have done, thought, or felt.
This is why her story, as opposed to history, is an important one, because the idea that Shakespeare is this lone genius who is isolated from, and above his world - as he is in most of his worshiper's minds - is nonsensical. All of his ideas and inspirations came from somewhere (often from someone else's work that he'd read and appropriated!). He was not living in a bubble, and part of his world was his roots, and his kids, but a huge portion of it was his loyal wife, expertly holding down the fort while he was off playing in London.
Tammy Wynette's song, Stand by Your Man could have been written about this couple, and you cannot isolate him from her (Agnes, not Tammy!), no matter how much it superficially looks like he chose to do so himself. Unlike Shakespeare's plays, this is actually a true story that's worth thinking about, and this book is worth reading.