Bz497fxn 1464072480

Friday essay: How Shakespeare helped shape Germaine Greer’s feminist masterpiece

A typescript for the Female Eunuch with photo of a young Greer on a book. Germaine Greer archive: 2014.0038.0001. Picture Nathan Gallagher, copyright University of Melbourne

Friday essay: How Shakespeare helped shape Germaine Greer’s feminist masterpiece

A typescript for the Female Eunuch with photo of a young Greer on a book. Germaine Greer archive: 2014.0038.0001. Picture Nathan Gallagher, copyright University of Melbourne

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.

The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer, 1970.

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 honours 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 longhand and dense, tiny, insane portions of notes all in capital letters.

A page from Germaine Greer’s Marciana notebook, 1965. The notebook is named for the 1560 Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice (the National Library of St Mark’s) where Greer made these multilingual notes. 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 Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra, dated May 13, 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”.

Drawings on the back of Germaine Greer’s 1964 handwritten notes on Antony and Cleopatra, dated May 13. Greer was a senior tutor in English at the University of Sydney from April 1963 until September 1964. 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”) 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. This included 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 be displayed for only 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!

The black filing cabinets in which Greer stored her archive at her Essex home. 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 the 20th 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 20th-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 Revolution for the hell of it: the transatlantic genesis and serial provocations of The Female Eunuch: 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.

Germaine Greer speaking at Sydney University in 2005. 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 non-fiction 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

Greer cites Shakespeare’s poem The Phoenix and the Turtle, as an example of the fullest expression of the ideal of love “as a stabilizing, creative, harmonizing force in the universe”.

As I read, the unusual name of the poem had fired a memory from the archive. I searched my description and found the work mentioned in lecture notes Greer took in her third year at Melbourne in 1958 in an English seminar. Greer had labelled the folder “the Epyllion”. (An epyllion is a brief, narrative poem dealing with mythological or romantic themes.)

A record I had considered so dry was suddenly animated. In her inventory Greer has described the folder as containing: Notes from final Seminar Course, Melbourne University with “Miss Walker”, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Jennifer Dallimore, Philip Martin, Margaret Walters. My description says:

The first page of notes is titled Miss Walker on Hero and Leander. Works and writers mentioned include: William Shakespeare; Christopher Marlowe; M.C. (Muriel) Bradbrook; S.L. Goldberg; L.P. Wilkinson; The Rape of Lucrece; Venus and Adonis; Phoenix and the Turtle; S.T. Coleridge; Hero and Leander; Ovid; Ovid in Shakespeare.

Germaine Greer’s notes from final Seminar Course, Melbourne University with ‘Miss Walker’ and others, 1958. University of Melbourne Archives, Germaine Greer Archive, The Epyllion, 2014.0044.00080

The Phoenix and the Turtle in the title of this metaphysical poem is actually short for “the turtledove not the shelled reptile”.

The 1958 Epyllion folder is the earliest record we have digitised. The latest is handwritten notes on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, all housed in a folder that Greer has called Warwick: Macbeth 1971?

I poured over the Epyllion, looking at the names of the scholars that Greer was citing. One stood out: M.C. Bradbrook. As a Melbourne girl, Greer took notes from books by an M.C. Bradbrook; six years later she had a Commonwealth Scholarship and was sitting in seminars led by this same woman and by other influential scholars, such as the Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams. In 1967, Muriel Bradbrook would examine Greer’s PhD (along with John Russell Brown). That same year, when Greer applied for her first academic job, the lectureship at Warwick, Bradbrook was one of her referees, along with Professor S.L. Goldberg of Melbourne’s English Department and Dr Ann Righter, Greer’s supervisor.

What a journey Greer had made. The bookish girl had met her hero and she kept all the evidence of these encounters. Her lecture notes from her first weeks at Cambridge were stored in two battered loose-leaf book ring-binders labelled “Michaelmas term, 1964”.

‘Have got very tired and thin’

If Shakespeare – or, rather, Greer’s thinking about Shakespeare – is a key source for many of the arguments about love, marriage, romance and family in The Female Eunuch, then Greer’s two great intellectual mentors, Bradbrook and Righter, are important sources as well.

The digitised records trace this intellectual genealogy too. Bradbrook was the first female professor of English at Cambridge University and eventually became mistress of Girton Hall, the first all-women college at Cambridge. In her biography of Greer, Wallace notes that Bradbrook came to Cambridge from Glasgow to read English in 1927 and,

in 1930 received a certificate stating she had done all that would have entitled her to graduate as a Bachelor of Arts, if she were a man.

Bradbrook was taught by influential British literary critic F.R. Leavis, another scholar who features heavily in Greer’s undergraduate notes.

Righter was only a few years older than Greer when she supervised her PhD. She had just arrived at Cambridge from the United States. In 1969, Righter married John Barton, one of the founders of the Royal Shakespeare Company and she became Ann Barton, the name by which she is best known. In 1974, Barton became the first female fellow of New College, Oxford University.

In 1965, Greer began work on her doctorate and we have digitised the seven named research notebooks she kept that year: Dude; Cemoli; Bodley; Marciana; Molasses; Cluny; and Coco.

The notebooks contain notes in French, Italian, Spanish, German, Latin and English. In response to a query about the digitisation of some of her Shakespeare records, Greer pointed out the significance of these notebooks. “The point of my research into Shakespeare’s early comedies was to show that Shakespeare was not imitating a Continental tradition,” Greer said.

Most scholars, who did not have the languages to read the Italian, Spanish, French, German and Latin comedies, simply assumed what they had to prove.

Greer learnt Italian as a child; the mother of neighbourhood friends taught her. She also did fencing at the YWCA and told UMA that during the 1956 Olympics she had volunteered as a translator for French and German-speaking fencing teams.

The 1965 research notebooks are beautiful objects in their own right and demonstrate the complexity of Greer’s multilingual scholarship as well as the flashes of ideas about other things that sometimes intruded. Marciana, for example, contains notes about The Taming of the Shrew but flip it over and a different object emerges – handwritten drafts for a hilarious sketch about what the English expect of an expatriate Australian. After contributing this sketch, Greer was invited to join Cambridge University’s Footlights Dramatic Club; she was one of the first women to be granted membership.

News clipping on Germaine Greer with Hilary Walston and Sheila Buhr, the first women admitted to Footlights, article in Cambridge News, 1964. Nathan Gallagher, copyright University of Melbourne Archives

In a doleful fragment inside Marciana’s back page, Greer notes:

Have got very tired and thin. Constantly worried about money because cannot scale down standard of living – but do not suggest that grant is inadequate.

Greer had been named actress of the year at Cambridge in 1965 and this note may be an application for a supervision job (where a PhD student takes on undergraduate supervision of a small group of two or three students).

Greer was a member of Newnham College, Cambridge’s second all-women college. The head of the college from 1954 to 1972 was agricultural economist Ruth Cohen. She was the first Jewish principal of an Oxbridge college. Slipped into a substantial cache of papers housed in a red ring-binder labelled “The Importance of Love’s Labour Lost Michaelmas Term, 1964” is a note from Cohen, dated April 13 1967, inviting Greer to lunch.

Sympathy for the virago

Greer was surrounded by pioneers. Even the men she worked with were breaking new ground. At Warwick, Greer was recruited by Professor G.K. Hunter, a Shakespearean scholar and the founding professor of Warwick University’s Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies.

A 2008 obituary of Hunter in The Independent described him as a Renaissance man, a champion of marginalised Elizabethan playwrights like Lyly.

To achieve his hugely ambitious vision for English at Warwick, Hunter headhunted a brilliant team of rising specialists – including Claude Rawson and Bernard Bergonzi – American linguists, poets and such new talents as Gay Clifford (the youngest academic in Britain when she was appointed) and Germaine Greer (who juggled teaching, writing and appearances in a TV comedy show).

Could it be that the extraordinary confidence of Greer’s voice in The Eunuch is the result of her long and rigorous intellectual apprenticeship?

One especially suggestive document in the digitised Greer Shakespeare material is from about 1965 or 1966. It contains a delicate typescript marked Cambridge Papers by Greer and another small cache of papers bound together with soft purple wool tied in a bow. At the top of the first page are two labels written in Greer’s hand. TFE Editorial has been struck out and Greer has written Shakespeare’s Early Comedies next to it. TFE is Greer’s shorthand for The Female Eunuch.

A page from a typescript Germaine Greer has labelled TFE Editorial [struck out] then Shakespeare’s Early Comedies, c. 1964-c.1967. University of Melbourne Archives, Germaine Greer Archive, [Cambridge Papers], 2014.0044.00124

Bradbrook, Righter and others guided Greer towards the Shakespeare she wanted to find, the brilliant writer who favoured tough women, the man who used “transvestite heroines”, girls in men’s clothing who “win the men they love by a more laborious means”.

“When the choice lies between the ultra-feminine and the virago, Shakespeare’s sympathy lies with the virago,” Greer writes in The Eunuch section on love and marriage. A virago is a bad-tempered or violent woman, a woman of “masculine strength or spirit, a female warrior”. In 1973, Virago was the name fellow Melburnian Carmen Callil chose for the new feminist press she founded in London.

The digitised records are a fraction of the Shakespeare-related material in the Greer Archive but they contain the foundations for so much of Greer’s thinking in The Female Eunuch and beyond.

The Greer who wrote The Female Eunuch was a phoenix, but that flaming bird could not exist without its counter, the stabilising, harmonising, quiet, steadfast turtledove. “Dr G” – the rockstar groupie, the cunt power shocker, the TV host – was the loudmouth partner of Dr Greer, the academic.

Loved, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance and no space was seen
‘Twixt the turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.

This extract from Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle is the one that Greer cites in her discussion of The Ideal, the Love section of her most famous book. The early-years Greer Shakespeare records suggest that the Female Eunuch had two authors, and the turtledove matters at least as much as the phoenix.


To see “Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare: early writing” records go to University of Melbourne Archives website and type Greer Shakespeare into the search catalogue box. The records are also published in the library’s digital collections repository.