Sunday, 1 March 2015

Does Shakespeare Pass The Bechdel Test?

Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's finest
female creations.
Shakespeare's women are some of the most memorable and feisty gals in literature/theatre. But do any of his plays pass the Bechdel test?

Perhaps it's unfair to apply a concept coined in the mid 1980s to four-hundred-year-old literature, but, given how many strong women exist in Shakespeare's work, I think it's a valid question.

What is The Bechdel Test?

In case you're not familiar with it, the Bechdel test is a very basic measure by which to gauge gender bias. Originally, in Alison Bechdel's comic, Dykes to Watch Out For, she was referring to films, but the test is now used in evaluating all kinds of fiction.

The Bechdel test sets a very low bar for female presence in a film/play/book by asking three simple questions.

1. Are there two named female characters?
2. Do these female characters talk to each other?
3. Is their conversation about something other than a man?

Gender Bias in Shakespeare

Shakespearean women, like Portia, have an
important function in the plays
I think there can be no doubt that there is gender bias in Shakespeare's work.

Not a single play features a female lead (I was tempted to consider Viola the lead in Twelfth Night, but that's actually very much an ensemble affair), and men outnumber women considerably in every play.

I'm not knocking Shakespeare for that.

He was a man, so it's natural that he would incline to tell men's stories. He also had an all-male cast, so writing a play with a large number of women would pose problems - not every one of his actors had the youthful face and unbroken voice to do drag.

Besides which, male-centric plays or not, his female characters have one thing in common: they're all strong. Not one is there for titillation or window dressing; they're not plot devices. Instead, they have agency.

But back to the question at hand...

Does Shakespeare Pass The Bechdel Test?

Do Shakespeare's women talk to each
other about something other than a man?
Now, let me first preface this by saying I haven't read/watched every play specifically with this question in mind - that would be quite a time-consuming effort.

So, if you can think of a play that does pass, which I've missed, feel free to let me know.

With the exception of The Tempest (some people consider Ariel female, but that's very much debatable. And if we have to resort to counting non-humans, then the answer is surely, 'no'), every other of Shakespeare's plays passes the first of Bechdel's requirements: they all have more than one named female character.

Do they talk to each other?

Of the 36 plays still in the running, we now have to dismiss a further three: Julius Caesar, Henry VI Part 1, and Henry VI Part 3. In all three of these plays, the women are kept separate and never utter a word to each other.

Do the women who do talk to each other talk about something other than a man?

So far, The Bard isn't doing too badly.

But here's where the Bechdel wheels start to fall off a little. The tragedies are male-centric, the comedies are predominantly romance-centric. And so, when the girls do get together, it's often to discuss men.

Shakespeare's responsible for some of the
most feisty girls in English literature
There are a several plays that are borderline; offering only a few very brief lines that are about something other than a man. For example, one of the fleeting conversations in Much Ado About Nothing concerns a wedding dress.

The women in Love's Labours Lost and All's Well That Ends Well also spend much of their time talking about men, but there are brief instances of other topics.

Helena and Hermia have their wonderful blazing row in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is not about a man, but it is over men, so it's a woolly one.

Viola and Olivia have several conversations in Twelfth Night, but Olivia thinks Viola's a man and, much of the time, they're talking about Orsino.

In As You Like It, Rosalind and Celia discuss running away, but that's mixed with some drooling over Orlanda, agreeing to take Touchstone with them, the possibility of finding Rosalind's father, and the benefits of donning the disguise of a man - so it too is up for debate.

All right, so what about the plays that definitely pass muster? 

Do the witches in Macbeth count as women?
Despite talk about men dominating Portia and Nerissa's scenes, there is the wonderful, "How far that little candle throws his beams!" chat about the nature of goodness in a bleak world in The Merchant of Venice.

In Henry V, Katherine is being taught English by her lady's maid, Alice.

Mistress Quickly tells Doll Tearsheet that she's looking pretty chipper despite having over indulged, in Henry IV Part 2 - it's brief, but I guess it counts.

In Macbeth, the witches fill each other in on what they've been doing since they last met, although you could argue their status as 'women'.

What Does All This Prove?

Maybe what they talk about is much less important
than how complex their characters are
Well, first it demonstrates that Shakespeare doesn't do too badly - certainly better than you'd assume a four centuries' old playwright to fair when placed under modern feminist scrutiny.

In fact, with almost half of Hollywood movies failing the Bechdel test, it suggests Shakespeare was ahead of his time...but we knew that anyway.

However, the Bechdel test is limited (nobody's suggested otherwise), because even the Shakespeare plays that fail it have thoroughly corking females characters in them.

Just because the women of Othello or King Lear, for instance, talk about men doesn't mean they're not wonderful, strong and full characters in their own right.

It simply means most aspects of their lives are affected by men, which sort of goes without saying in Elizabethan and Jacobean times, doesn't it?

The far more important and impressive thing is that Shakespeare's women are all complex, interesting and unique.

For more on Shakespeare's women, take a look at:

Monday, 9 February 2015

Would You Choose One of Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes as a Valentine's Date?

Which of Shakespeare tragic heroes would you
go on a date with?
Shakespeare wrote some great lovers, but would you really want any of his heroes for a Valentine’s date?

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, those of us who are dateless might still be looking for a special someone to spend the ‘most romantic’ night of the year with.

Of course, if you’re looking here, you won’t have much luck - partly because I’m not convinced they’d make good dates, but mostly because they’re either entirely fictional characters or long-dead historical figures.

Nevertheless, if you had to choose one of Shakespeare’s heroes to be your Valentine, which would you pick?

Titus Andronicus 

Anthony Hopkins as Titus Andronicus 

To be honest, Titus is past the point of having much interest in romance.

However, you might think he’d make a good companion. Well, frankly, he wouldn’t.

Showing a distinct lack of interpersonal skills and not much sympathy, he’s a grizzled old soldier through and through.

And, of course, if you cross him, it’s not just your words he’ll make you eat.

Romeo Montague

Romeo is exciting, but
his affections are fickle

Energetic, fun-loving and demonstrative, on the face of it Romeo could show you a good time.

However, he is as impetuous in his affections as he is in his actions.

So, you’ll need to have him on a tight rein and, most importantly, keep his eyes away from beautiful young members of the Capulet family.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar by Reubens
He’s married, for goodness sake!

But, if the thought of Calpurnia’s wrath doesn’t put you off, bear in mind that we’re just over four weeks away from the Ides of March.

So, it’s probably best not to get too attached.


Keep in mind, Freud thought he had
an Oedipus complex

A prince, but not always ‘charming’, Hamlet is intelligent and witty. However, he’s deeply troubled and can be moody and brooding.

He also has a habit of procrastinating and spends a lot of time talking to himself.

While some girls may relish the challenge this disturbed man poses, it’s enough to drive others crazy.


Othello's a decent guy; shame
about his friend

A big, strong hunk of a man, Othello is a General in the Venetian army.

However, he has a softer side. Romantic, affectionate and loyal, Othello seems like the perfect man.

But his choice in friends is troublesome, and if he believes you to be unfaithful, you might not survive the night.

King Lear

Ian Holm as King Lear

Here’s one for the more mature lady or, perhaps, those looking for a sugar daddy.

However, he’s not going to keep those riches for long.

A fiery temper can be indicative of a passionate nature, but, in this case, anger management is a serious issue.

Say the wrong thing or nothing at all, and you risk being ditched like yesterday’s collar’d beef.


Lady Macbeth's a woman you don't
want to scorn

Another married man and, this time, you definitely wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of his other half.

Moreover, he’s pretty focused on advancing his career and doesn’t really have time for romance.

Mark Antony 

No, not the guy who used
to be married to J-Lo.

Word to the wise, girls: steer well clear.

Very fond of the booze, Mark’s more in love with material things than he is with any one woman.

So, when his wife dies and he has an opportunity to make an honest woman of Cleopatra, he’ll break the poor girl’s heart by marrying Octavia…all for money and status.

He’s a wrong ’un, ladies.

Timon of Athens 

The too trusting Timon
He seems like a wonderful guy: intelligent, articulate and generous to a fault. Literally, generous to a fault.

When he’s friends neglect him, it’s all going to go horribly wrong.

However, Timon might make the perfect mate for a woman who loves the quiet solitude of nature.

Caius Martius (aka Coriolanus) 

Well, if he's Tom Hiddleston, the appeal is obvious

Another soldier and married man, Coriolanus is a guy who communicates largely with violence.

He can be a bit cocky, which some girls may view as healthy self-confidence.

Worryingly though, his allegiances are swift to change if people don’t agree with his point of view.

But, in his favour, he does still listen to his mother!

So, which of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes would you want to be wined, dined and romanced by?

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Get Your Hands on a Free Study Guide to Macbeth

If you're studying Macbeth, do yourself a favour and pick up What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth absolutely free.

I'm giving the book away for a limited time - just until the end of January, so make a move now. Click here, to pick up your free copy. And, if you find it useful, be sure to share it with your friends and classmates.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Role of Macduff in Macbeth

Dan O'Herlihy as Macduff in the 1948
film adaptation
If Macbeth is the villain of the piece, which, of course, isn't technically true - but, for the sake of argument, if Macbeth is the 'bad guy', Macduff is, unquestionably, the 'good guy'.  Yet, for a good chunk of the play…In fact, for almost all of the play, Macduff doesn’t seem to have a very big role. This is mostly because, unlike many of Shakespeare’s ‘great’ characters, he doesn’t say much.

His presence, albeit economic with words, is more keenly felt when watching the play or a screen adaptation. You could describe him as one of those strong, silent types. 

However, conversely, Macduff is extremely expressive when it comes to things that have affected him deeply, such as the murder of Duncan and slaughter of his family. So, he’s a rather odd mix of pragmatism and deep emotion.

In fact, strangely, he seems to be the only man in the play who does not feel a sense of shame or embarrassment when it comes to grieving and demonstrating emotion.

How Does Macduff Feel About Duncan?

The first we hear from Macduff is when he arrives at Macbeth’s castle and is sent to rouse Duncan. 
Terence Bayler as Macduff in the 1971 film adaptation
He swiftly returns, having found the king’s bloodied body. “O horror, horror, horror!/Tongue nor heart/Cannot conceive nor name thee!” 

He goes on to speak of his dismay, claiming that the others who enter Duncan’s bedchamber will ‘lose their sight’ when they set eyes on his corpse.

He’s obviously distraught and yet, in the ensuing confusion, he is the only one who has the presence of mind to ask Macbeth why he has so quickly ‘offed’ the two grooms, who slept outside Duncan’s door.

He is also, among the mêlée, the first one to run to Lady Macbeth’s assistance. 

Of course, he’s wrong in assuming that she is a weak little thing, who needs to be protected from the evils of the world, but it’s worth noting that he seems to be the only character who is not either losing his head or thinking solely of himself.

Charles Kimble as Macduff
circa 1840

Macduff: The Man of Action

One of the delightful things about Macduff is that he is a man of action, rather than a man of words. 

This serves a purpose for Shakespeare, in that, when Macduff speaks to Ross about the situation in Scotland, he is able to get some exposition handled neatly and quickly.

Rather than sitting around whining about things, though, Macduff swiftly decides to take action. 

Against the wishes of his wife, who believes that he’s signing his own death warrant, he heads to England to help Malcolm raise an army against the tyrant Macbeth.

The Family Man

Perhaps the most revealing moment, in terms of Macduff’s character, is when he is told of the murder of his family. He is clearly distressed and demonstrates a moving mixture of tenderness towards his children and disbelief at the thought of their deaths. “All my pretty ones?/Did you say all?” And it’s surprising how much emotion is expressed in so few words (not something you’d usually associate with Shakespeare).

But, of course, he doesn’t wallow in grief for long. In fact, the second line he speaks after Ross, reluctantly, delivers the news is, “And I must be from thence!” Determined to avenge the murders of his loved ones, he is even more keenly resolved in his mission to take down Macbeth.

By killing Macduff's family, Macbeth sealed his fate
good 'n' proper.

Would he have done so if his wife and children had lived? Probably. But as soon as Macbeth ordered the slaughter of Macduff’s household, it became a dead cert.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Shakespeare's Measure for Measure in a Nutshell

Almost all of Shakespeare's plays have more than one plot strand, so it's difficult to sum the action up in one short sentence or two. But, with the 'In a Nutshell' series of posts, I've tried to do exactly that. 

And this time it's the turn of Measure for Measure, which, while originally categorised as a comedy, is actually quite a dark play.

A young novice nun faces a dilemma when a lecherous (and hypocritically pious) judge offers to spare the life of her brother, who awaits execution for the crime of fornication, if she relinquishes her virginity to him.

For more Shakespeare plays in a nutshell, take a look at Love's Labours Lost, The Comedy of Errors, or As You Like It.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Types of Love in Twelfth Night

How many different kinds of love are in
Shakespeare's Twelfth Night?
I received an email today asking me about the different kinds of love in Twelfth Night. As I've already mentioned in another post, there is a lot of love going on, but is all that love created equal?

Love is timeless. It is the subject of so much literature and art, because of this very fact, and because it is such a tempestuous emotion that often leads us to do things we never imagined possible. This makes it ripe for drama.

Love is something that dominates Shakespeare's plays, but it's not always simple romantic love the Bard's dealing with.

I was asked about four different kinds of love that a very nice reader of the blog identified in Twelfth Night. What was Shakespeare trying to say about love, and about the period the play was written in?

Homoerotic Love Between Antonio and Sebastian

Shakespeare claims love for his
fair youth, but it's probably not homosexual
as we know it
You could call Antonio and Sebastian's love homoerotic. 

But it's a good idea to keep in mind that love between men was very different in Shakespeare's day. Take a look, for example, at the first 126 of his sonnets, which are all addressed to the 'fair youth'. 

Sebastian is the younger, 'pretty' boy. So, you could draw comparison between Shakespeare's relationship with his fair, young patron and the one portrayed between Antonio and Sebastian.

It boils down to the fact that men had closer bonds of friendship and 'love' without it being deemed homosexual in centuries past. 

Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice are another example of two men whose love could be deemed homosexual, but that was probably not Shakespeare's intention. I take a look at this very subject in the post: Was Shakespeare Gay?

Viola (while dressed as Cesario) and Orsino, on the other hand, do have a kind of simmering undercurrent of the homoerotic about them, though.

Love for Love Itself: Orsino's Love for Olivia

Shakespeare definitely has a penchant for poking fun at the grandiose, elevated love that you see in Petrarchan sonnets - he does it in his Sonnet 130

Woe is poor Orsino, but is it really love?
If we don't already know that Orsino's overegged 'love' for Olivia is not "hungry as the sea" as he claims, it's made plain by the very rapid transfer of his affections to Viola at the end of the play.

Why would he want to poke fun at this kind of love? Well, because it is ridiculous. 

It's not a difficult target, is it? Men (or women) who make such obviously exaggerated claims of love are funny, because we know it's not sincere. 

To borrow a phrase from another play, it's a case of protesting too much.

Interclass Love: Toby and Maria

Does Toby really marry
below his status?

Toby and Maria definitely have a cross-class relationship. 

I don't know whether Shakespeare is saying that it's always all right to marry out of your social standing, but it's definitely all right for a drunken, old layabout like Toby! 

The other thing to keep in mind when we're discussing this intersocial kind of love is that Twelfth Night (the festival) was all about misrule: turning things on their heads - the lowest were the highest and highest were the lowest. 

So, in those circumstances, your standing by birth doesn't really matter!

Feste's Love of Money

Feste does take money, but I'm not sure he's in love with it. When Orsino tries to give him money, he declines, saying "No pains, sir: I take pleasure in singing." In several instances he does take money, of course, but that's how he earns his living, so I don't see it as avarice.

And I would add one more important type of love that dominates a strand of the plot...

Malvolio's fall is all the sweeter for how far he's
come down

Self-love: Malvolio Only Has Eyes For...

Malvolio's love for himself probably is all as hungry as the sea and can digest as much. 

It's what causes him to duped; it's what allows him to be duped; and it's what ultimately makes his fall so much more catastrophic.

For more about Twelfth Night, take a look at my post on who loves whom, or an analysis of Malvolio, or a find out what Twelfth Night was and its relevance to the play.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Should We View Shakespeare's Plays Through Feminist Eyes?

Was Shakespeare a protofeminist?
I received an email today from someone who found my post on Feminism and Shakespeare. He was interested to know more about whether or not we should look at Shakespeare's work with that modern perception, and asked me a few questions on the topic. 

For what it's worth, I don't think there are any definitive answers. But here are my thoughts on the subject.

Applying feminism, or feminist ideas, to Shakespeare is always difficult - partly because feminism as we know it simply did not exist at the time, and also because Shakespeare's women were played by men. 

So, in that sense, you might say it's wrong to even attempt to look at Shakespeare from a feminist angle. 

But the question of whether we should look at Shakespeare's work under a feminist lens is, I think, a superfluous one. 

It is inevitable that our modern perceptions will apply, whether we're consciously doing it or not. We look at The Merchant of Venice through the lens of anti-Semitism; we look at Othello through the lens of racism. Those concepts didn't exist when Shakespeare was writing, but we simply cannot ignore what we know in the here and now.

Of course, we shouldn't cast judgement on the playwright using the same standards we own today. Yet, it is impossible to completely disregard our modern understanding of the world.

Shakespeare work has a lot to say
about gender roles

So, how much of our modern experience can we apply to Shakespeare? 

We're bound to do it, whether it is deliberate or not. We judge everything, including literature, art or the facts of history, by the things we've learned in the meantime. 

My personal opinion is that as long as we remember that the same 'rules' did not apply in Elizabethan and Jacobean (and even later) societies, then it is perfectly acceptable to offer a comparison.

Is it wrong to give feminist views to Shakespeare's female characters? 

I don't think so. Just because the word 'feminism' didn't exist doesn't mean questions could not be asked about a woman's role in society. And gender is such a big part of many of Shakespeare plays. 

The examination of femininity in Macbeth, for example, is fascinating. Are women capable of heinous acts? With the cross-dressing girls like Viola and Rosalind, he was quite literally playing with gender roles; and mostly that was for comic effect, but even comic effect can have something serious to say.

Is it wrong to view Shakespeare
from a modern feminist perspective?

Do you think that there is any appropriate balance between what Shakespeare intended and modern interpretations? 

As I say, to my mind, feel free to take whatever modern slant you want, but it's essential to remember the world in which the plays were created. 

The truth is though, most of Shakespeare's plays haven't aged at all badly, which is what makes them so ripe for adaptation.

The female characters are not so very different from their modern counterparts, and that is why we do tend to think of Shakespeare's work as feminist. After all, we don't expect a four-hundred-year-old play to present female characters that are recognisable and relatable. 

How does cross-dressing influence the way his female characters were intended to be presented? 

My feeling is that the cross-dressing was predominantly a comic device. It causes confusion, and it also allows us to laugh at traditional gender roles. 

In Shakespeare's own time, it was a case of double cross-dressing, of course, because only boys played female roles, which adds another layer of humour that we don't get in most modern productions.

Strong female characters is a
hallmark of Shakespeare's plays

If there is no concept of feminism in Shakespeare's time, what do his strong female roles represent? 

Just that: strong female roles. There were strong women long before 'feminism' came into being. 

What's really interesting to me is that all Shakespeare's women are strong, which may not be particularly reflective of society (although, bear in mind, there was a strong woman on the throne for much of Shakespeare's lifetime). 

But more than anything, I think he realised that strong, gutsy girls made for much more captivating and dramatic characters. 

And, in an anticlimactic way, maybe that was what was at the heart of it all. Perhaps there was no particular statement about gender, it was just making good theatre!

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare, and his portrayal of women, take a look at 'Are Shakespeare's Plays Sexist?'