|Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's finest |
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
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?
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
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?|
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
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: