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'. (ETA: As a reader kindly mentioned, the witches don't actually have names. So, even if we do count them as women, alas, they do not pass!)

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:


  1. I don't know if Macbeth passes. We'll count the witches as women (they call each other sister); however:

    1) They're not named (I don't think Witch 1 is on the license, for instance)

    2) Their conversations are all literally about a man: either that sailor, who is Master of the Tiger, or Macbeth, or Banquo. They never speak to each other about their day, or ambitions. It's all in service of that prophecy.

    1. Hi Mike,

      Thanks for chiming in. In terms of what they're talking about, it's a grey one, for sure. And, to some extent, depends on how long a conversation needs to be to pass. They do talk briefly about the sailor's wife and 'killing swine'. And then, of course, there's the 'witches brew' scene.

      Now, you're right, of course, that it's actually all in service to the prophecy and Macbeth. Their roles exist only to affect Macbeth, and, by extension, affect Shakespeare's new king, James. There's certainly nothing much in the way of character development - they're pretty one-dimensional.

      I had a hunch (don't know why) that Hecate referred to them by name. But I've just discovered that I'm very wrong about that. Hecate is the only witchy lass with a name, and when she's talking to them it is just about Macbeth. So, indeed, they actually fall at the first hurdle!

  2. How about Richard III? In scene 4.4 there's a long and very bitter conversation between Queen Margaret and Queen Elizabeth about who has suffered more, and who has deserved to do so. Now, a lot of the murderers and murderees listed on both sides are male, but there's also a fair bit about the loss of the Queen's own pomp and political power...

    Richard II has the conversation about sorrow between the Queen and her maids; she's named, they're not..

    Measure for Measure has a conversation between Isabella and another nun about the rules of convent life--again, one named, one nameless character

  3. And Portia and Nerissa talk about how to pass as men convincingly...not sure whether that passes the test or not. (They do mention their husbands once, in saying that they'll never see through the disguises.)

    And in The Winter's Tale Paulina and Emilia talk about the Queen's health, her courage and the birth of her daughter, though they then go on to talk about her entirely unreasonable husband.

    1. Hello, Joanna.

      Sorry I've only just noticed your comments, and thanks for lending your thoughts to the discussion. I think we could seriously consider stamping the queens' debate in Richard III as passing.

      Where we've got unnamed ladies, we falter, of course. And the Portia/Nerissa one, which is a fab scene, is all about men - how they'll pass as them. Could be debated, though, I suppose.

      Thanks again, great suggestions and definitely more food for thought.