Shakespeare and the Bechdel Test

Plays are sometimes even worse than movies in the representation of women, due to things like small casts, limiting the chances for a range of representations, and numerous cultural traditions that banned women from performing. The English language’s most famous playwright remains in constant production, and staging his plays is a huge international industry, so it is worth looking at whether he can do better than a modern Hollywood producer. The famous Bechdel test does not tell us whether the representations of women in a piece of fiction are compelling or satisfying, but it does give us a sense of whether the writer regards women as an integrated part of the world being created. How does Shakespeare, so often spoken of as having something to say to all people, measure up in offering the voices of women?

Four women in Elizabethan gowns surround a puzzled-looking gentleman in a ruff.

Stage production of Love’s Labours Lost

1. It [the movie or, here, play] must have at least two, named female characters

The Tempest is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays that cannot scrape together at least two, named female characters. Ariel could possibly be granted female status, and is often played by a woman these days, but is more accurately thought of as genderless.

Timon of Athens gets through on a technicality, but does not really deserve to. Two women appear in a solitary scene to speak a handful of lines between them, and provide a foil for some misogynist slurs. We must apply the rule generously to allow this one, as the two are utterly undifferentiated, with no discernible personality, they merely happen to have been bestowed with names. There is also a “masque of ladies” in an early scene. A masque was an entertainment designed for court, a bit like a ballet, but with some spoken words as well as dance and music. (Now I think about it, Tempest has a masque with goddesses, too.) The performers in a masque are not integrated into the story arc as characters, so it’s hard to know whether they count or not. This play is markedly out of character for Shakespeare (it was a collaboration with Middleton), and I tend to think of it as not really having female characters at all.

2. Who talk to each other…

There are three plays that, while they have several female characters, keep them separated. Julius Caesar is one of these, in which the wives of Caesar and Brutus make separate appeals to their respective husbands in the hope of averting the disaster they feel is immanent. Parts 1 and 3 of the Henry VI trilogy are the other culprits. Each of these two plays has one sensational part for a woman (plus a few one-scene wonders) but as she is a military leader she spends her stage time surrounded by men, and has no opportunity to converse with other women. Joan of Arc in part one and Queen Margaret in part three are both marked as exceptional, possibly dangerously perverted, examples of womanhood. The other women in these plays feature in the more usual female role of bargaining chips to be moved around in the formation of potential dynasties.

Troilus and Cressida comes close to failing at this second stage, but in a more interesting way. Here Shakespeare appears to be making a point of how isolated Cressida is, even giving her a manservant in the scene where we might expect a female confidante (of the kind seen in Two Gentlemen of Verona and the like). The only time two women appear is when Cassandra and Andromache unite to beg Hector not to go to battle. Which leads us to…

3. About something other than a man.

After sailing through the first two criteria (we have only eliminated five plays of 38), it is at this final hurdle that a few of Shakespeare’s plays fall. Measure for Measure has five named female characters, one of whom converses with two others, but unfortunately they are forced to keep discussing men, by the men’s insistence on messing with their lives. Generally, the more women, the more likely we are watching a romantic comedy, and therefore the more likely that most of the characters are talking about relationships between men and women most of the time.

Much Ado About Nothing, Love’s Labours Lost and All’s Well that Ends Well show whole groups of women together, admittedly they are usually talking about men, but not always. Much Ado is a great play for interactions among its four women, but only scrapes by with a couple of brief conversations that are not about men (one is about a wedding dress, I don’t know if that’s any better). Four is the most usual number of women in Shakespeare’s plays, and this one displays a common pattern for this often rather formulaic playwright: heroine 1 (upper class, feisty), heroine 2 (upper class, doormat), confidante of indeterminate class, lower-class comic. There are variations, of course. Twelfth Night and Othello only have three women, Love’s Labours Lost has five. Pericles has seven female characters, as well as a couple who, in modern stage practice, convert very easily to women, if the director is so inclined. The Winter’s Tale, by the standards of plays of this period, is a oestragen-fest, with representatives of the virgin, mother and crone, not one but two comic wenches, and a whole slew of female servants and ladies-in-waiting.

The great strength of what Shakespeare does for women lies less in their number than in their complexity. At first glance they seem easily classifiable as ingénue, matron, villainess and so on, but always reveal themselves as much more when examined closely. In addition, one of the scenarios he returns to most often is of women supporting each other, even in the ranks of death, which belongs to that quirky category of things that happen all the time in life, but hardly ever in the movies.

All in all, Shakespeare does better than most, but not as well as we would like. We might choose to think of him as Joss Whedon in doublet and hose.

Warning: Do not attempt this exercise with David Mamet.

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism

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19 replies

  1. Orlando, thanks so much for this – I googled this exact question last week after seeing the latest Bell production of MacBeth (which wouldn’t pass, I don’t think) so this was very satisfying!

  2. Nice post. Just out of curiosity, what’s your favourite Shakespeare monologue by a female character (that isn’t in Taming of the Shrew)? I’m looking for a decent monologue and it seems like the dudes get all the best lines :( I can’t imagine being a female actor in current theatre/ Hollywood. That would suck. Massively.

    In addition, one of the scenarios he returns to most often is of women supporting each other, even in the ranks of death, which belongs to that quirky category of things that happen all the time in life, but hardly ever in the movies.

    This! My favourite thing to see represented in any play or movie is female friendship. Sisterhood is awesome.

  3. Eden, if you enjoy hearing about female friendship you should love this speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Titania explains to Oberon that she won’t give him the little human boy he wants, because of her friendship with his mother. It brings tears to my eyes, especially since I was pregnant and understood how much it does feel like being a galleon in full sail:
    Set your heart at rest;
    The fairy land buys not the child of me.
    His mother was a vot’ress of my order;
    And, in the spiced Indian air, by night,
    Full often hath she gossip’d by my side;
    And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
    Marking th’ embarked traders on the flood;
    When we have laugh’d to see the sails conceive,
    And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
    Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
    Following- her womb then rich with my young squire-
    Would imitate, and sail upon the land,
    To fetch me trifles, and return again,
    As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
    But she, being mortal, of that boy did die;
    And for her sake do I rear up her boy;
    And for her sake I will not part with him.
    Thacky, I think Macbeth passes because the witches talk to one another about what they’ve been up to since they last met.

  4. Thacky my daughter’s review of Macbeth by Bell was “only one witch, and no forrest”. Still, she did enjoy it recently in Canberra – having studied it for her HSC years ago.
    But I want to put a hand up for poor old Shksp, given the times he was writing in, and the “good” he did in illustrating topics which continue in discussion to this day. He may have failed fem 101, but I’m thinking that the ‘steel’ (and the joy) in his plays is many times provided through the voice or actions of his female characters, and that, overall, he provided – what is that phrase I’m searching for? – “a mixed bag of uppity women” for us to continue to argue about.

  5. “does better than most, but not as well as we would like”
    Joss Whedon indeed!

  6. Thanks orlando- I had forgotten about that one. Love it :)

  7. Eden, “The quality of mercy” speech (spoken by Portia in the Merchant of Venice) would be one of the most powerful and most-quoted monologues in English literature. It isn’t about men; it’s a philosophical treatise and there are many people in the media today who should be forced to write an essay on it! I learned it off at school, and it still reverberates in my brain.
    The quality of mercy is not strained.
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
    Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
    The throned monarch better than his crown.
    His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
    The attribute to awe and majesty,
    Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
    But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
    It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
    It is an attribute of God himself;
    And earthly power doth then show like God’s
    When mercy seasons justice.

  8. There’s this collection of monologues spoken by women in Shakespeare’s plays… I’m not especially familiar with many of the plays, but I like Emilia’s speech from Othello, which reads (to me) like a women’s version of Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, except without all the stuff about revenge.

  9. Much Ado has some of my favourite Shakespearian women in it, but I think As You Like It is one notable for the depiction of the relationship between Rosalind and Celia (sisters or cousins? Can’t remember) as well as having other named female characters.
    What I am taking from this article is that on the whole Shakespeare was better at representation of women as interesting members of the human race than most modern Hollywood movies. That’s kinda depressing.

    • TansyRR, it’s sadly all too probable that the fact that Shakespeare wrote those parts to be played by male actors had an influence both on how willing he was to write their characters as complex and how willing the audience was to listen to them emote.

      • P.S. Just had a realisation: when taking a long term view as part of Elizabethan theatre management, the youngsters in one’s troupe need training so that they can play the great big huge roles when they’re older, so giving them at least a few interesting things to say when they’re playing one’s ingenues is simply an obvious part of the apprenticeship program.

  10. Favourite monologue by a Shakespearean female character: definitely Titanias’s rant in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when Oberon tries to take away the little Indian boy. It starts:
    “These are the forgeries of jealousy.”
    The speech before it is great, too; Oberon says “Am I not thy lord?” and she hits back with:
    “Then I must be thy lady, but I know,
    When thou has stol’n away from fairy land
    And in the shape of Corin sat all day
    Playing on pipes of corn and versing love
    To amorous Phillida. Why art thou here,
    Come from the farthest steep of India,
    But that, forsooth, the bouncing Amazon,
    Your buskin’d mistress and your warrior love,
    to Theseus must be wedded?”

  11. Tigtog, I think it would be a shame to believe what you suggest, given that we have no evidence that Shakespeare was thinking that way. If we are going to speculate, it’s just as likely that he wrote such complex female characters because he had so many women close to him to observe. The later plays, for example, show a lot of fathers learning to appreciate hyper-intelligent, recently grown-up daughters.
    The apprentice system almost certainly had an influence on most of the plays having 3 – 5 women, instead of one. Performance, for them, was training, exactly as you describe. Say you have six apprentice boy actors in your troupe, you give your two most experienced big roles, throw in two or three of the “one-scene wonders” I mentioned. Maybe give one a walk-on with a bit of a song, and roster one off to patch costumes and learn his lines for the next thing.
    What we can tell for certain from the plays is that Shakespeare’s company had two boys, one short and dark, the other tall and fair, who together made a stonkingly brilliant comic double act (Hermia/Helena, Hero/Beatrice, Adriana/Luciana, Celia/Rosalind, Rosalind/the Princess of France).
    Thanks M-H, Tamsin and Nicola, it’s fun to have a game of favourite speeches going on. I have so many it’s hard to narrow it to a reasonable list, but I’d love to keep the floor open for more submissions!

    • orlando, you’re quite right that I’m in pure speculation territory. Besides, even if the number of complex speeches for the younger female characters may have been in part governed by apprentice-training, at least Shakespeare wrote them with a sense of appreciation of actual women rather than only as abstract feminine archetypes.

  12. TT and Orlando – do you think that the immediacy of the audience could have had something to do with that? I’m guessing that in the Globe theatre at least the people in the flea pit would have been pretty much standing around the stage (?) and so if the female characters hadn’t rung true then the crowd could have made its displeasure known?

  13. I found this post by googling for Shakespeare and the Bechdel test (a friend texted me wondering if someone had checked), and just off the top of my head you’re missing at least one play. Henry V has the English lesson between Katherine and her Gentlewoman, and while the dramatis personae does not name her, her speech header is definitely “Alice” in the Folio.
    And this is even more of a technicality, but if the line “Look to the baked meats, good Angelica” is directed to the Nurse in R&J, then we’d have to take another look at her dialogue with Juliet and Lady Capulet.
    Of course, neither of those editorial issues are relevant if we use the original version of the Bechdel test, which doesn’t require names.

  14. Justin, I don’t see why that means I missed it. Princess Katherine and her Gentlewoman, Alice, have a conversation that isn’t about a man. That’s a pass.
    Juliet and her mother have two conversations, pretty much entirely about men. I think the idea of a ‘named’ character is to eliminate one-liners like ‘woman at counter’ or ‘second waitress’ from the test. A character like the Nurse, whether or not she is given a Christian name, is very much a full and involved person in the story. But as I mentioned, quite a few of the plays collapse over the third rule, and we would have to go through them all in much more detail to decide on which side each one falls.

  15. Great post – I found this following The Shakespeare Forum’s link on Facebook.
    I think that some of the comments are also very interesting – it provokes alot of debate. The prominence allowed to women (despite played by boy actors and older male performers) does much to show Shakespeare’s belief in the female perspective and psyche. Female characters, as mentioned above, have been the vehicles for some of the most important and stirring speeches.
    thanks alot – I shall look forward to more.

  16. Working on a production of Tempest at present, and it has caused me to decide I was being too harsh in excluding the masque from the test. It shows spirits impersonating the goddesses Juno, Ceres and Iris talking together about having come to bless Miranda and Ferdinand’s wedding, which is pretty gyno-centric stuff. So if we also give him his Timon technicality, I am upgrading Shakespeare to all plays pass 1, all but three pass 2, and most pass 3 as well, but someone with more energy than me will have to make a call on exact numbers. I’m sure he’ll be very pleased.


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