What happens if you read The Female Eunuch not for evidence of feminism but for evidence of Shakespeare?
As celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death intensify, I have been cataloguing a key series in the Germaine Greer Archive and these two seemingly unrelated events collided to inspire the random question that opens this article.
I decided to take my silly question seriously. This article explains why and discusses how reading The Female Eunuch for evidence of the Bard reveals a new kind of book, one that is deeply informed by more than a decade of full-time traditional humanities study, most of it devoted to early English literature, especially the work of Shakespeare.
“Series 2014.0044 early years academic, performance, writing and personal papers” is a small but significant collection of records that sits around the middle of the 487 boxes of the Greer Archive in the University of Melbourne Archives store. The university bought Greer’s archive in 2013.
It includes drafts of The Female Eunuch, annotated typescripts for Greer’s early journalism for underground magazines like OZ and Suck and many letters, including Italian-language letters between Greer and Federico Fellini, letters between Greer and Marsha Rowe, the co-founder of Spare Rib, letters between Greer and Australian abortion rights activist Julia Freebury and tantalising one-offs, such as notes from Denis Altman, Ann Curthoys, Christopher Hitchens and Warren Beatty.
But the earliest papers in the series – and the archive itself – are lecture notes and essays from 1957 and 1958, when Greer was a tall Melbourne teenager in her second and third years at the University of Melbourne. Greer was doing a BA majoring in English and French. She graduated with an honors degree in 1959.
About half of the series, eight boxes in all, contain Greer’s university notes from Melbourne (1956-1959), the University of Sydney (1960-1963), the University of Cambridge (1964-1967) and from Warwick University where she lectured in English from 1967 until 1973.
The extent of these records was surprising and, I’ll admit, a bit annoying. I wanted to get to the juicy stuff, like the Suck correspondence, but here I was wading through dozens of folders of notes about 16th and 17th century men who wrote plays, poems, sermons and pamphlets: Shakespeare; Lyly; Browne; Sidney; Spenser; Nashe; Jonson; Webster; Dryden; Donne; Sir John Davies; Samuel Daniel; Butler.
Once I had got through the individual blokes, there were many more folders about Renaissance literature, Jacobean drama and, of course, William Shakespeare’s early comedies, Greer’s special area of interest. Her PhD, The Ethic of Love and Marriage in Shakespeare’s Early Comedies was awarded in 1968. She had studied four of his plays: Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew and Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Some of the papers were ripped, stained and fragile but they were safe now in numbered, acid-free folders and archival boxes, on shelves in a climate-controlled store. I prised out rusty staples with my little forked gadget and the staples fell apart in my hands, staining my skin with orange-brown dust. The papers were typed and handwritten and Greer’s writing varied greatly, moving from an ornate sort of copperplate to scrawled long hand and dense, tiny, insane portions of notes all in capital letters.University of Melbourne Archives, Germaine Greer Archive, Marciana, 2014.0044.00002., Author provided
The handwriting was one good thing, the doodles and notes to self were another. On the back of course handouts, Greer sketches a girl with her head in the clouds, a woman in a backless evening dress, a spider in a web. As she reads, she writes messages to herself. In a PhD notebook from 1965, Greer’s dense notes on European comedies written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries are broken up with a comment in thick black Texta. “And so on. I can’t stand it.”
Turn over Greer’s 1964 handwritten notes on William Shakespeare’s play Anthony and Cleopatra, dated 13 May and you can see sketches and notes. “I’d love to see you get P.G. Why? Don’t you reckon I could?” says one. Another is “bored”.University of Melbourne Archives, Germaine Greer Archive, 1964, 2014.0044.00121
In a 1958 folder Greer has labelled Browne, (yes, I had to look it up – Sir Thomas Browne, 1605-1682, an “English polymath”) there is an essay Greer wrote when she was a third-year student at Melbourne. Two small, typed pages of tutor’s notes are attached. The unidentified tutor notes: “You yourself write vigorously and often expressively, but a bit carelessly.”
I felt moved by this evidence of Greer’s scholarship, by the care she had taken to preserve this material, and by the demanding and mostly defunct Western canon humanities curriculum preserved in the folders.
But aside from a future biographer, what sort of researcher would ever want to look at these bits of old paper? The content was testament to an elite, outmoded, traditional sort of education devoted entirely to the work of dead white men. The records appeared absolutely academic, in the most disparaging popular definition of that much abused word. Where was the Greer liberation, feminism, fire?
Around this low point, senior archivist Stella Marr and I had a meeting with our colleague Dr David McInnis, the University of Melbourne’s Gerry Higgins Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies. Late last year, not long after I had started in this job, I’d shown McInnis a box of Shakespeare material from 1967 and 1968, including an annotated typescript for Greer’s PhD and a beautiful notebook covered in green floral-printed cloth, labelled “Venezia - 1966 - Afosto Researches for PhD The Taming of the Shrew Love’s Labour’s Lost”.
McInnis had selected four Greer items for After Shakespeare a University of Melbourne exhibition that celebrates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Greer is fond of felt tip and in the late 1960s, she often used wild colours (yellow, pink, purple, green). To protect the felt tip from fading further, each page could only be displayed for three months each. Perhaps the manuscripts could be digitised to help preserve them and make them accessible? Perhaps there was other Greer-Shakespeare material that could be copied too?
On a hunch, I decided to re-read The Female Eunuch (1970) hunting not just for references to Shakespeare but to the dozens of other Elizabethan and Jacobean era writers I had just encountered in the archive. I used my Harper Perennial 2006 Modern Classics paperback edition of The Eunuch for the experiment.
The hard-working, firebrand scholar
In the Work sub-section of The Female Eunuch, Greer mentions her academic job at Warwick as an example of fair employment (she got equal pay, she had been picked ahead of male applicants) but she then downplays her own academic labour. “Guiltily I must also admit that I did not toil particularly hard to attain what academic distinction I had,” Greer writes.
The records tell a different story, one of dedication, hard yakka, ambition, a fever to know. Greer completed her doctorate in less than three years and she did this at a time when many scholars spent a decade on their PhDs while also enjoying the security of a tenured teaching position.
Greer worked very hard, no doubt, and reading The Female Eunuch with this work in mind opens up new connections between this classic feminist polemic and humanities scholarship. Greer did not need a postdoctoral fellowship to develop her thinking; she wrote The Female Eunuch instead. Talk about knowledge transfer!Nathan Gallagher
I selected 23 records for “Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare: early writing”, a digital collection that allows fans and scholars to reconnect Greer the Shakespearean (and Renaissance) scholar with Greer the anarchist, the artist, the feminist and the journalist and so help contribute to new, or perhaps rediscovered, genealogies for one of twentieth century’s most influential books.
The material has not been digitised to support a claim that a man who died 400 years ago can somehow claim credit for a book that transformed the lives of thousands of twentieth century women. Rather, the records invite us to think again, about the influence a traditional humanities education – including instruction from some of the world’s top scholars of English literature – had on The Female Eunuch and Shakespeare is an important part of that story.
In July 1979, in “Second Thoughts: The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer”, an article for the Guardian Women’s page, journalist John Cunningham joked that the only man mentioned more often than Shakespeare in the book was Freud.
“A big chunk of the book is argued historically on the basis of English literature, from late Medieval romances, through 18th century novelists, to women’s magazines currently on the bookshelves,” Cunningham writes.
Here is Greer PhD moving into top critical gear: ‘It is by now commonplace to point out that in feudal literature romantic love was essentially anti-social and adulterous.
Shakespeare, who is mentioned probably more frequently than any other male except Freud, is unromantic in his view of marriage: his practical view is summarised approvingly: ‘He recognised it as a difficult state of life, requiring discipline, sexual energy, mutual respect and great forbearance: he knew there were no easy answers to marital problems, and that infatuation was no basis for continued cohabitation’.
Likewise, in Untamed Shrew, a 1997 biography of Greer, Christine Wallace expresses surprise that Greer’s brief marriage to builder Paul du Feu is barely mentioned in the section on love in The Female Eunuch.
Instead, it [the Love section] is a vehicle for what looks suspiciously like off-cuts from her doctoral thesis. There is far more on the Renaissance and Shakespeare in the chapter than on modern matrimony and the tyranny of Mills and Boon.
Such observations, whether admiring or disparaging, are rare. A significant new scholarly assessment of the book is Marilyn Lake’s essay, Strumpet Voluntary: the lead one in Australian Feminist Studies forthcoming special issue on Greer. In it, Lake uses early draft and synopsis material from the Greer Archive to foreground the Eunuch’s “American orientation”, including the influence of “radical American admirers of Black urban machismo: Norman Mailer, Eldridge Cleaver, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin” on its content and tone.Will Burgess/Reuters
Most popular contemporary commentary on The Female Eunuch highlights the book as a revolutionary, personal polemic.
If Greer’s own scholarship is mentioned, it is just as an aside. For example, in April 2016, The Guardian named The Female Eunuch as no. 13 on its list of the “100 best nonfiction books”. In his accompanying essay, Robert McCrum acknowledges Greer as a writer “steeped in the English literary tradition” and praises her book as “an explicit liberation struggle that focuses on the self”. In 2010, the 40th anniversary of the book, novelist Rachel Cusk argued that The Eunuch was a work of “piercing subjectivity”, a book whose power came from its autobiographical elements.
When I re-read the Eunuch with an eye for Shakespeare, I began to see many of the names I had catalogued in the archive also appeared in the text and the footnotes. Half of the references in the Sex sub-section are Renaissance era writers. Ditto for The Stereotype. Most of the sources cited in The Ideal are at least 400 years old: Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, Daniel, Wyatt, Nashe, anonymous Elizabethan ballads, they are all named in a couple of dense pages in the sub-section The Middle-Class Myth of Love and Marriage.
The Phoenix and the Turtle
Authors: The Conversation Contributor