Showcasing Germaine Greer's Shakespearean scholarship

By Dr Rachel Buchanan

Think Germaine Greer and a number of personas come to mind: Star of the Sea schoolgirl, trailblazing feminist, sixties sex symbol, serial provocateur. But leading Shakespearean scholar is rarely high on the list.

The After Shakespeare exhibition shows that Greer’s early academic labour inextricably linked her thinking with the work of the Bard. Four objects provide tantalising evidence of the beginnings of Greer’s ongoing passion for Shakespeare.

One is an unbound typescript created almost 50 years ago. The author used scissors, glue and sticky tape to fix the words she had typed but time has burnt the tape and the brittle orange strips peel from the page like blistered skin.

Archivists have bandaged the typescript up. Plastic paper clips and Mylar sleaves keep the peeling words in place. The mended object floats on a clear mount inside an elegant Perspex case in the eastern corner of the After Shakespeare exhibition in the University of Melbourne’s Baillieu Library.

Cut and paste emendations, including ‘Greek writing’, in Greer’s PhD typescript, page 112
Cut and paste emendations, including ‘Greek writing’, in Greer’s PhD typescript, page 112. Note the reference to eunuchs at the bottom of the page. University of Melbourne Archives, Germaine Greer Archive, ‘Typescript for PhD thesis: The ethics of love and marriage in Shakespeare’s early comedies’ 1967’ 2014.0044.00127.

Taming and making safe precious artefacts

Greer’s PhD thesis typescript shares the case with three other objects: a pretty green and blue floral cloth; a hard cover red journal; and a thin pile of papers, notes for lectures written in blue biro.

Small white labels give each object a title: ‘Typescript for PhD thesis: The ethics of love and marriage in Shakespeare’s early comedies’ 1967; ‘Notebook Marciana 1965’; Notes for PhD thesis, Venice 1966’; Notes for 16 lectures on Shakespearean comedy, delivered at Warwick University, 1969.

Each Greer object has a digital twin, a robust ghost waiting behind the doors of the archive’s catalogue

The labels give a provenance as well. The objects come from the Germaine Greer Archive at the University of Melbourne Archives. Each Greer object in the exhibition also has a digital twin, a robust ghost waiting behind the doors of the archive’s catalogue and the library’s digitised collections search boxes (they are four of 23 records digitised for the Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare: early writing project series 2014.0044).

Archivists, curators, digital preservation specialists and exhibition designers have boxed, re-boxed, selected, wrapped, conserved, described, photographed, scanned and displayed the objects in the case. We’ve tamed them, made them safe, protected the university’s investment, but these things existed in the wild once, they had work to do out there and they were precious for different reasons.

Remembering these reasons restores a shimmer of feral vitality to these untouchable objects and remind us of how Greer’s doctoral training has fed and continues to feed her journalism, her books, her public speaking, media appearances and more.

Research files from Germaine Greer's home in Essex
PhD typescript and other research files from 1967 and 1968, in a drawer from one of Germaine Greer’s filing cabinets at her home in Essex. Greer’s multi-lingual research notebooks, written in 1965 in England and Italy, contain evidence of her early thinking towards her PhD on ‘The ethics of love and marriage in Shakespeare’s early comedies’ (awarded, Cambridge University, 1968).
Photo: Nathan Gallagher. Copyright: University of Melbourne.

Following the Calabrian trail

In the introduction to The Madwoman’s Underclothes, a 1986 collection of her essays and journalism, Greer explains that the three months she spent in Calabria in 1967 – the place where she worked on the typescript in the exhibition case – “underlies all my thinking, to an extent that can surprise me, even now”.

The trip had not gone to plan. Greer was supposed to visit the Adriatic coast with her boyfriend Emilio (an architecture student in Venice) but when she arrived in Italy she discovered he had fallen out of love with her. One romance ended, another began.

Greer's time in Calabria is infused with passion for the place and the work she completed there.

Presepe al Santuario di San Francesco da Paola (Calabria).
Photo Rollopack. Via Creative Commons

A rather lecherous old man (“Emilio’s friend’s father”) drove Greer south from Venice. For three days, they were squashed together in a Fiat bubble car driving “up and down the simmering plain of Sybaris”, hunting for somewhere Greer could stay. Eventually, they “came upon an isolated clump of stone buildings in sight of the sea”.

Inside, crumbling staircases led to small balconies. “The old man panted up the middle one and felt among the stones of the balustrade for a key,” Greer writes. He thought the place was too basic but Greer loved it. She was a scholar of Renaissance literature and stepping into the room at the top of the ruined staircase was a gesture of physical solidarity with the poets, playwrights and audiences she was studying.

The floors were “ancient terracotta tiles, crazed into a million fissures… the walls were coated with velvety whitewash. There was no running water, no electricity”. Her windows looked out on blazing cornfields, a grapevine and “a vast uliveto planted with the oldest olive trees I have ever seen, each with a girth of eight or nine feet”.

Beneath the exquisite romance of these descriptions is the labour. Greer slept on one of the five beds in the room. The mattresses were made of coarse homespun “very hard on the skin, especially sunburnt skin” and filled with crackling corn husks. She would get up in the “grey-violet pre-dawn with the shepherd’s wife, washing myself at the well, watching the sun come out of the steel-gray sea as I sipped my thick black coffee, hurrying to finish the day’s ration of rewriting (for I was finishing my PhD thesis) before the day’s dramas and disasters overtook me…”

Greer had arrived in Calabria with “a bright red typewriter and many books”. Sadly, the Greer Archive does not hold the portable typewriter but the typescript itself is a reminder of the physical work of typing a doctoral thesis and the intellectual exactness this task required in the pre-computer age. Greer’s typewriter created letters that are top heavy with ink. Or perhaps that is just the way Greer struck the keys 50 years ago in that lovely shuttered room in Italy with its “refracted glow of the sunlight on the olive trees”.

Greer’s interventions in the typescript include: cutting and pasting (with glue and sticky tape); crossing out; hand emendations, including hand-written references in Greek; marking up the copy with printer’s symbols; over-typing incorrect letters; and marginalia.

Drawings of women on a typed, hand-annotated bibliography
Germaine Greer’s marginalia is a delightful feature of her academic papers. This image shows drawings of women on a typed, hand-annotated bibliography used for her multi-lingual research into William Shakespeare's early comedies. University of Melbourne Archives, Germaine Greer Archive, ‘Bibliography’ 1964, 2014.0044.00059.

The most fragile parts of the typescript are the footnotes and the bibliography. Almost every page contains cut and paste corrections. Here is evidence of Greer’s devotion to accuracy, collegiality and acknowledgment of the intellectual mentors. There are also many examples of Greer’s eclectic styles of handwriting (plump, crabbed, copperplate, spidery, absolutely minute, loopy scrawl) and her multilingual scholarship.

Paying due recognition

The notes – “reference incomplete leave space will telephone” – are probably meant for Mrs Joy Tapply, a woman Greer describes as her fairy god mother. “Without her help with the dreary wastes of typing and her patience in allowing me to inundate her flat with papers, and rend the night with the clangour of the typewriter, and the meals she forcibly administered when I had forgotten them, this volume would ever have materialised,” Greer writes in the preface.

In the typescript’s preface Geer also acknowledges the two women who taught and guided her. “My deepest thanks are due to Doctor Righter, whose gentle rigour has, I hope, not been exercised in vain, and to Professor Bradbrook, whose seminars kept us embryo Renaissance scholars in touch with our subject and with each other, and with her never-failing enthusiasm, and her great learning.”

But the objects in the display case are a reminder that acknowledgment can be fleeting, especially for scholars who are women. They invite us to think about how and why reputations are built. Whose legacy sticks? Whose is dismissed? Why? It is ironic, perhaps, that the Shakespearean scholarship of both Germaine Greer and Muriel Bradbrook, her brilliant teacher, has been obscured, derided or overlooked.

Shakespearean scholarship, her first vocation

In the introduction in Australian Feminist Studies (2016) special issue on Greer, Donald McManus analyses Greer’s championing of love and marriage in Shakespeare’s Wife (2009) and the thinking that preceded it.

McManus argues that Greer’s first vocation as a Shakespearean scholar and her significant “output as an analyst of literature, poetry, drama and art” has been obscured by her international profile as a feminist commentator and icon of sexual liberation. But Greer’s drama scholarship rewards serious attention because “it stands as a corrective check to the conservative, still male-biased established word on the popular perception of Shakespeare’s legacy”, McManus writes.

Germaine Greer in her office at home in Essex, 2014
Germaine Greer in her office at home in Essex, 2014. The contents of the filing cabinets are now part of the Greer Archive at University of Melbourne Archives. Photo: Nathan Gallagher.
University of Melbourne Archives, Germaine Greer Archive

As McManus points out, The Female Eunuch includes plenty of Shakespeare analysis. Her slim volume, Shakespeare (1986) published by Oxford as part of its Past Masters series, is her third significant 20th century work on the playwright. In Shakespeare, Greer argues that it is the audience (as well as the performers) who makes a work significant. It’s a sentiment Greer has expressed about The Female Eunuch as well, observing that it is the readers who made the book matter, not her.

Much of Greer’s Shakespearean work can be traced back to the influence of Muriel Bradbrook (1909–1993), the first woman to become a professor of English at Cambridge University. Bradbrook was an expert in Elizabethan romantic poetry, in actor’s and in comedy, fields that were shunned by men writing at that time.

In Reclaiming Heartlands: Shakespeare and the history of emotions in literature (2015), Bob White argues that Bradbrook wrote three of the earliest and most important books on these subjects. One of them, The Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy (1955) is a key source in Greer’s PhD.

Bradbrook wrote 20 books in all. White, the program leader in the ARC Centre of Excellence for History of Emotions at the University of Western Australia, says Bradbrook is one of a remarkable group of pioneering Shakespearean scholars, all women, whose work has not been given the credit it deserves. Others include: Helen Gardner (1908–86); Madeline Doran (1905–96); Caroline Spurgeon (1896–1942); Frances Yates (1899–1981); and Muriel St Clare Byrne (1895–1983).

White calls these women first-wave feminists “as important in their own way to the scholarly worlds as suffragettes like Emily Pankhurst who chained themselves to railings”.

White was one of the many academics who contacted me after I wrote a piece for The Conversation on the connections between The Female Eunuch and Greer’s PhD on Shakespeare’s comedies. One theme of the responses was the importance of intellectual genealogies.

Back to Melbourne, where it all began

In the introduction Greer began reading Dr Bradbrook’s work when she was an undergraduate at Melbourne. When Greer arrived in Cambridge in 1964 as a Commonwealth Scholar, Muriel Bradbrook headed the Renaissance seminar and was head of the English Department and the mistress of Girton College. Initially, Greer enrolled in the tripos (a qualification that is a preparation for a bachelor’s degree).

In response to a query from University of Melbourne Archives, Germaine Greer said that when she decided to study for a research degree instead of taking the tripos it was Professor Bradbrook who said “about time too”.

We are only just beginning to understand how much can be learnt from these four little objects.

Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare: early writing collection is in the library’s digitised collections repository. To mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death in 2016, 23 items from the early years series in the Greer Archive have been digitised and published to demonstrate Germaine Greer’s engagement with the work of Shakespeare and other early modern writers of English literature.

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