Does Shakespeare pass the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test is a measure of how male and female characters are portrayed in cinema and other media. A piece passes the Bechdel test if it:

a) has at least two women in it
b) who talk to each other about something besides a man.

That’s it. Pretty simple, right? Not a lot of contemporary media passes the Bechdel test, rather alarmingly. While I was working out proportions of male and female characters in Shakespeare, I got a number of questions about whether or not Shakespeare will pass. I went looking to see if anyone else had approached this question before. Someone has, but at the time of writing this, their website is down for maintenance.

I have already shown that all of Shakespeare’s plays have 2 or more female characters. But what about “talking to each other about something other than a man”?

I began by searching in WordHoard for all examples of characters with the gender of female who use the lemma form she. In essence I am doing this analysis backwards: I’m asking if there are female characters who talk about something other than a man, then seeing if plays which pass this aspect of the test also feature a female character talking to another female character. If a male character was referred to in some way in the window of +7 words left or right in a way indisputably linking the discussion about the female character to the male character, the play has failed this part of the test.

WordHoard highlights the place in the play where each instance of the lemma she appears; these examples can be cross-referenced by clicking each individual example to call them up in the context of the play by act and scene.

King Lear, for example, fails, with “Why should she write to Edmund?” (IV.v.19)
Screen shot 2013-04-03 at 8.45.57

Titus Andronicus might pass the first part of the test, though:Screen shot 2013-04-03 at 9.14.22
These examples do not show any female character talking about another female character in explicit reference to a man. Male characters (lords) are alluded to, but I read them to not be directly implicated to the newborn baby the Nurse speaks to Aaron about – though you may disagree.

The first cull – do female characters in Shakespeare talk about something other than a man? – left me with the following plays:
Winter’s Tale, Pericles, Macbeth, 2 Henry 6, King John, 2 Henry 4, 1 Henry 6, Tempest, Henry 5, and I’m going to include Titus Andronicus.

1 Henry 4, Richard 2 and Julius Caesar had no examples of the lemma form she, so I will address them here as well.

The next question is “do female characters talk to other female characters in the play?”
Open Source Shakespeare allows you to isolate character’s speeches by name – and gives you the option to show cue speeches and the ability to see these speeches in the context of the play. They have been linked where appropriate.

The Winter’s Tale does not pass the test. Although Emilia and Paulina are talking to each other, they are talking about the king in Act 2 Scene 2.

Pericles does not pass the test: Leonine and Marina are talking to each other, but about Marina’s father (scroll up just slightly from where this link will take you) in Act 4 Scene 1.

Macbeth does not pass the test either, as The Gentlewoman talks about Lady Macbeth, but to the Doctor, who is presumably male, in Act 5 Scene I.

2 Henry 6 does not pass the test, as the female characters do not talk to each other.

King John does not pass, because of an interchange between Constance and Queen Elinor in Act 2 Scene I, in which they discuss John, Elinor’s son.

2 Henry 4 also does not pass, for two reasons: one, this interchange between Lady Northumberland and Lady Percy has them talking about the King in Act 2 Scene 3,  and two, because of this interchange between Doll Tearsheet and Hostess Quickly from Act 2 Scene 4, in reference to Pistol.

1 Henry 6 does not pass the test because the female characters do not talk to each other.

The Tempest also does not pass the test because the female characters do not talk to each other. (I am considering Ariel a female character here; this is still very much up for debate, and this may automatically disqualify The Tempest overall.)  Miranda and Ariel are not in conversation.

Henry V does pass the Bechdel Test, due to this discussion (in French) between Katherine and Alice from Act 3 Scene 4.

Titus Andronicus ultimately does not pass the test due to this conversation between Tamora, Lavinia and Bassanius in Act 2 Scene 3.

1 Henry 4 does not pass because the female characters do not talk to each other.

Richard 2 passes because the Queen and her ladies “are carefully not talking about Richard” as @angevin2 kindly points out; they are instead talking about garden sports in Act 3 Scene 4.

Julius Caesar does not pass because the female characters do not talk to each other.

By and large, Shakespeare does not pass the Bechdel test: but two plays do – and it’s not the plays I ever would have expected. However, I should point out I might be wrong here: like I said above, I did this backwards, by finding plays that had female characters talking without mentioning male characters, then checking to see if these plays did show two female characters in conversation. If you have a better solution for finding out if Shakespeare passes the Bechdel test, I am all ears!

EDIT (18 June 2015)

Some recommended further reading:
Selisker, Scott. (2014) “Literary Data and the Bechdel Test“, from the What Is Data in Literary Studies? colloquy, Modern Language Association annual meeting, Chicago, IL.

Mariani, Daniel. (2013) “Visualizing The Bechdel Test“. Ten Chocolate Sundaes blog post, 24 June 2013.

Agarwal et al (2015) “Key Female Characters in Film Have More to Talk About Besides Men: Automating the Bechdel Test“. Human Language Technologies: The 2015 Annual Conference of the North American Chapter of the ACL, pp. 830–840, Denver, Colorado, May 31 – June 5, 2015.

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8 comments

    1. As I point out here, gender of the witches in Macbeth is up for debate. I personally don’t think they are female (please see Brett D Hirsch’s excellent essay on “bearded women” in Macbeth).

      And even if they were to be counted as female, they are talking about Macbeth, which would rule them out anyway, unfortunately.

  1. I’m confused… my understanding of the Bechdel is that a film (or play) fails the test if there are no instances of women speaking to each other about something other than a man. It appears to me that you’re disqualifying plays on the basis of there being any conversation between women about a man, which isn’t the same thing: a film/play can’t fail the Bechdel on account of one (speaking) event but only on the grounds of a kind of representation being entirely missing.

    The spirit of the Bechdel, as I understand it, is not that female characters should not speak about men but that representations of woman need to be deeper and more complicated than that, that women should be represented as having lives independent of men, but not to the exclusion of any reference to men. But perhaps I am misunderstanding either the Bechdel or your interpretation.

  2. Hi Heather, really pleased to come across your research. I am an actress currently preparing a one man show for the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama based around Doll Tearsheet (2 Henry 4). I am looking at how far a contemporary actress playing Doll can convey a sense of liberation in her due to her profession in comparison to other female Shakespeare characters who do not work. I had thought that 2 Henry 4 DOES pass the Bechdel test as in A2S2 Doll and Quickly are discussing Doll looking well despite being hungover. As far as I can tell, they are not discussing Pistol as you said. However I do not know much at all about the Bechdel test and perhaps I am wrong.

    I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts.
    Phoebe

    1. One of the points I try to make in that post is that it is extremely difficult to reverse-engineer the Bechdel test using strictly computational methods. How successful this has been is very debatable! Because Doll and Quickly talk about Doll’s surprising wellness and therefore stop talking about Pistol briefly, this play would pass the Bechdel test.

      One of the reasons reverse-engineering this process doesn’t always work is that male characters can be discussed without necessarily requiring a male-colored noun, such as man, lord, knave, lad, or pronouns like he or him. But my computer can’t tell us that, and only a reader or audience member would know this from larger context of the scene. At a micro level this is much less visible… Likewise, Doll and Quickly’s discussion is not visible if you are depending on the search of Female Character + Male Term which is what I did here.

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