Despite the fact that his name is prominently cemented in the history of English literature as one of the practice’s greatest monoliths, William Shakespeare’s body of work is the target of myriad modern-day feminist-oriented criticism. This is mostly due to the man’s lackluster portrayal of women in his works. Throughout the breadth and width of Shakespeare’s career, he has shown his audience female characters that are depicted as either a form of commodity, or as a symbol of the disempowered.
However, is it possible that this portrayal of women as lesser individuals was not an artistic oversight of Shakespeare, but instead another layer of the playwright’s systematic analysis of his society? This paper thus attempts to study the implications of the above quotation from Dr. Donna Freitas, with one of Shakespeare’s works (in this case, Sonnet #55 Attempts to reconcile the role of Shakespeare’s female characters hand in hand with the scrutiny of the social norms during his time are often not that well-received.
Some critics would consider such studies useless gestures rationalizing the lackluster form of gender-specific apologetics by an acknowledged giant in the history of the English language. Nevertheless, there could be something to be said for this argument: Donna Freitas and William Richardson both offer ideas that suggest there was more to Shakespeare’s words and characters or personas. Let us use Sonnet #55 from the Fair Youth series of sonnets as an example for this study. A brief skim through the text would evoke in the reader a very masculine set of images used to emphasize the subject’s indestructible nature.
However, the way in which Shakespeare dedicates the sonnet is arguably feminine; Dr. Freitas introduces several stereotypes that are commonly seen in most of Shakespeare’s works. In this case, the Sonnet can be cited as a decent example of Shakespeare’s portrayal of women as virgins awaiting liberation, metaphorically speaking. Although the female figure is observed from a distant observer’s point of view, the poem ends with a soft note, almost resembling a sense of longing and / or respectful ownership (Freitas).
Hence, notwithstanding the fact that these sonnets were directed to a man, the persona almost seems very protective of the object. He or she even goes to great lengths just to make sure that the idea of its immortality was irrefutable. William Richardson adds further insight into the matter by stating that, considering the period where Shakespeare published his works, his female characters were in fact extremely colorful — he just had to work within the society in order to avoid censure (Richardson).
In the context of Sonnet #55, the persona and object actually break through boundaries of both male and female. They evoke both masculine and feminine sensibilities throughout the text, which adds a level of anonymity to the equation that is uncharacteristic for the society Shakespeare lived in (Richardson). This does not prove much. What it does, however, is highlight the possibility that Shakespeare had little consideration for social norms, and instead chose to scrutinize the said norms by providing characters and voices that varied starkly from the Great Britain that Shakespeare was born into.