10.06.2016

Shakespeare: The Complete Wenches

CULTURE | | | |

Illustration: Irene Palacio

The virgins, the vixens, the victims and the villains…

He’s been dead for 400 years this year, but his sway over English literature and language is undiminished – so how female characters fare in Shakespeare is as important as ever. So is his treatment of women, on the whole, fair or foul? To find out, Anna Barbour subjects all 38 plays to an Elizabethan version of the Bechdel test – the low-bar feminist criteria usually applied to films in which, to pass muster, two female characters must be seen on stage at the same time, having a conversation about something other than a man – along with much more besides.

So here’s our play-by-play guide to the Shakespearean sisterhood, descending in order from the female-friendliest to the darkest, most archetypal misogyny-fests. And newsflash: Macbeth doesn’t even make the top 20…

Illustrations: Irene Palacio


38. Romeo and Juliet

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass. Juliet’s Nurse tells Lady Capulet about Juliet’s apparent death.
Characters: 4 female, 30 male
Dialogue ratio: 32% female, 68% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Juliet: One of the most powerful symbols of love in western culture. Disobeys her parents’ wishes to marry Romeo in secret. 8/10 virtue
There’s the rub: Every story about star-crossed lovers starts here. Juliet is one of the most iconic and best-loved female characters ever created: she’s independent, Romeo’s equal, proposes marriage in defiance of her family, and delivers some of the most beautiful lines ever written. It doesn’t get better than this.

 


37. The Merchant of Venice

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass: Portia and her maid, Nerissa, have a deep conversation about how context makes things beautiful.
Characters: 3 female, 18 male
Dialogue ratio: 29% female, 71% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Portia: A beautiful heiress, and the play’s heroine. What a woman – she saves a man’s life disguised as a lawyer, and finds a way to marry the man she loves. 9/10 virtue
There’s the rub: In among this play’s religious bigotry and racism, Shakespeare put Portia – one of his most intelligent and interesting heroines. During the play’s climax she wins a court case without any training, using nothing but her wits. Like the perm bit in Legally Blond, but in iambic pentameter.

 


36. As You Like It

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass. Celia and Rosalind talk about Fortune and Nature.
Characters: 3 female, 24 male
Dialogue ratio: 40% female, 60% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Rosalind: One of Shakespeare’s greatest. She’s brave, funny, clever and self-aware. 10/10 virtue
Celia: Rosalind’s wing-man. Loyal, loving and a brilliant friend. 10/10 virtue
There’s the rub: Rosalind is one of the best-loved of Shakespeare’s characters, and for good reason. Disguised as boy she teaches Orlando how to flirt with her, then gets herself into knots over him in a totally relatable way. Rosalind revels in life’s ridiculousness and engineers a happy ending for everyone. She even gets to deliver the play’s epilogue. Nailed it.

 


35. Pericles

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Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass. A prostitute tries to convince Marina to go on the game.
Characters: 7 female, 36 male
Dialogue ratio: 21% female, 79% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Marina: Pericles’s long-lost daughter. Gets taken to a brothel by pirates, but refuses to have sex. Instead, converts the punters to a life of virtue. 10/10 virtue
Thaisa: Marina’s mum and Pericles’s wife. Becomes a Priestess for the Goddess Diana. 10/10 virtue
There’s the rub: Wow, these women live full lives. Separated from her parents as a child Marina escapes assassination attempts, pirates and brothels, and eventually finds her dad. Meanwhile Pericles chucks Thaisa off a ship when he thinks she’s died, but she survives too – and, amazingly, doesn’t hold a grudge. Their goodness earns them a family reunion.

 


34. The Winter’s Tale

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass. Two female characters talk about Hermione’s baby.
Characters: 8 female, 23 male
Dialogue ratio: 25% female, 75% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Hermione: Wrongly accused of infidelity by her husband, King Leontes. 10/10 virtue
There’s the rub: Another play where a husband goes mental and accuses his wife of cheating. In this one Leontes actually imprisons Hermione, who dies of grief (before coming back to the life at the end, obvs), and abandons his daughter in the wilderness. It’s a comedy so all ends well, but poor, faithful Hermione gets a really raw deal.

 


33. All’s Well That Ends Well

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass: Helen and Bertram’s mum talk about motherhood, and Helen talks to a character called Diana about how weird men are.
Characters: 5 female, 11 male
Dialogue ratio: 35% female, 65% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Helen: This woman is determined. The man she loves might run off to war, but that doesn’t mean he’s getting away! 9/10 virtue
There’s the rub: It’s a pretty strange play. Helen’s madly in love with an arrogant nobleman called Bertram, and she manages to wangle getting married to him before he hot foots it to France. Helen follows and tricks Bertram into sleeping with her, which makes their marriage binding. Not a woman to mess with – and she gets what she wants – but she’s still left married to a tit.

 


32. Antony and Cleopatra

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Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass. Cleopatra chats to her maids throughout.
Characters: 4 female, 45 male
Dialogue ratio: 28% female, 72% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Cleopatra: Shakespeare’s sexiest, most melodramatic heroine. 10/10 vixen
There’s the rub: Cleopatra is a magnificent, complicated woman. At times she’s vain and cruel, at others sulky, and by the end she’s basically a goddess. Most of all she loves Antony, and their melodramatic love affair swings from high camp to real tenderness.

 


31. Measure for Measure

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass: the first time we meet Isabella she’s about to become a nun, and is asking another nun about the convent’s fun rules.
Characters: 5 female, 18 male
Dialogue ratio: 20% female, 80% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Isabella: Technically pure as snow. Wants to be a nun, and refuses to sleep with evil Angelo to save her brother, Claudio’s, life. 10/10 virtue
Mariana: Used to be engaged to Angelo, and tricks him into having sex as a way of saving Claudio. The Duke sanctions this, so technically it’s not a crime. 8/10 virtue
There’s the rub: This is Shakespeare’s Sin City. Everyone’s a bit tainted here, and everything’s about sex. Should a committed Christian sleep with a corrupt man to save her brother? And why is it OK for unmarried Mariana to seduce Angelo, just because a man tells her too? Morally murky, and female virginity is treated like a commodity.

 


30. The Two Noble Kinsmen

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass. The female lead, Emilia, tells her sister, Hippolyta about how much she loved her best friend as a child.
Characters: 12 women, 35 male
Dialogue ratio: 36% female, 64% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Jailor’s daughter: Falls in love with Palamon (one of the two noble kinsmen) so helps him to escape prison. 6/10 virtue
There’s the rub: The jailor’s daughter is so wild about Palamon that she breaks him out of jail and takes him to the forest…where he just abandons her. She’s so frightened and heartbroken that she goes mad. Eventually she marries her original boyfriend, who’s pretending to be Palamon. God only knows if she’s figured out of what’s going on. One of Shakespeare’s most vulnerable women.

 


29. The Merry Wives of Windsor

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Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass. Mostly the women talk about tricking Falstaff, but Mistresses Ford and Page do have a quick chat about how peaky Mistress Ford looks.
Characters: 4 female, 18 male
Dialogue ratio: 30% female, 70% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Mistresses Ford and Page: Best mates, and the “Merry Wives” of the title. Neither falls for Falstaff’s advances. 8/10 virtue.
There’s the rub: Cheeky Falstaff writes flirtatious letters to both of the Merry Wives, trying to seduce them because he knows they’re in charge of their husbands’ money – they’re having none of it, though, and decide to punish him. Life lesson: don’t hit on two women simultaneously, especially if they’re friends.

 


28. Cymbeline

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass. Nothing profound. Innogen asks her maid the time.
Characters: 6 female, 33 male
Dialogue ratio: 25% female, 75% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Innogen: Another magnificent heroine. Resourceful, brave, and faithful. 10/10 virtue
Queen: The original evil stepmother. Bewitches Innogen’s father, King Cymbeline, and tries to force Innogen to marry her stupid son. 8/10 villain.
There’s the rub: Like so many of Shakespeare’s heroines, Innogen is betrayed by her infatuated father and her jealous husband. Nothing stops this girl, though. She disguises herself as a boy, gets a job as a page, dodges murderers and wins her happy ending. None of the male characters comes close to her brilliance.

 


27. Richard II

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass – the Queen’s attendant ladies try to cheer her up.
Characters: 5 female, 31 male
Dialogue ratio: 10% female, 90% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Queen Isabel: Urges her overthrown husband to find some courage, and begs to be allowed to stay with him when he’s banished by the new King Henry. 8/10 virtue
Duchess of York: Rides to London to plead with Henry to spare her traitor son’s life. 8/10 virtue
There’s the rub: They don’t say a whole lot, but it’s another history play with a memorable female presence: the sorrow and courage of a wife and a mother shows how brutal civil war is, in contrast to the squabbling of the royal men.

 


26. The Tempest

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Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? A weird pass. Spirits Juno, Iris and Ceres bless Miranda’s wedding to Ferdinand.
Characters: 4 female, 14 male
Dialogue ratio: 11% female, 89% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Miranda: Has lived on a desert island since she was three, and hangs out exclusively with her dad. 10/10 virtue
There’s the rub: She may not have had much chance to be anything other than virtuous, but Miranda’s truly lovely. The men are all obsessed with her virginity and, yes, she marries the first man she meets, but she’s loyal to her magic dad, stands up to him when she thinks he’s wrong, and finds the world genuinely beautiful.

 


25. Henry VIII

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass. Anne Boleyn talks to an old woman about how it’s better to be low-born than royal.
Characters: 8 women, 75 men
Dialogue ratio: 17% female, 83% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Katherine of Aragon: A loyal wife, turfed out of the palace by a younger model. 9/10 virtue
There’s the rub: Poor Katherine of Aragon – the first of Henry VIII’s six wives to get the boot. She’s portrayed as a faithful, angry, dignified woman, so hurt by the King’s rejection of her that she foresees her own death. Look on the bright-side: at least she wasn’t beheaded.

 


24. Macbeth

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass, if you count the spell-casting witches as women. Which you don’t have to.
Characters: 10 female (incl. the witches), 25 male, various ghosts
Dialogue ratio: 24% female, 76% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: The witches: Banquo’s not convinced they’re women, given that they’ve all got splendid beards. They’re probably intended to be female, though, and are bad news. 9/10 villain
Lady Macbeth: Deeply ambitious, convinces her husband to murder the king. The guilt eventually drives her mad. 8/10 villain
There’s the rub: Any cold, ambitious fictional wife owes a debt to Lady Macbeth. She uses her sexuality to get what she wants, but also suppresses her femininity so she can be mean enough. The guilt eventually kills her, so she’s probably not quite as mean as she thinks she is. Still. Don’t get between this woman and her husband’s promotion.

 


23. Othello

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Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass. Desdemona and Emilia talk about infidelity.
Characters: 3 female, 17 male
Dialogue ratio: 20% female, 80% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Desdemona: Murdered by her husband, Othello, because he thinks she’s cheated on him. She hasn’t, obviously. 10/10 virtue
Emilia: Desdemona’s attendant and a breath of fresh air – cynical rather than virtuous, but completely loyal to her mistress. 8/10 virtue
There’s the rub: It’s easy to forget that faithful, doomed Desdemona had the courage to elope with Othello in the first place – she’s not just a victim. And where Desdemona is romantic, her best-mate is a realist. It’s tough-as-nails Emilia who discovers Iago’s crime, and who dies revealing what he’s done.

 


22. Coriolanus

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass. A character called Valeria tries to tempt the other women away from their sewing.
Characters: 4 female, 37 male
Dialogue ratio: 12% female, 88% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Volumnia: Arguably virtuous since she saves Rome, but pretty dark, too. 5/10 virtue, 2/10 villain
There’s the rub: Psychoanalysts have a field-day with Volumnia. As Coriolanus’ mother she pushes him to be violent, imagines what it’d be like to be married to him (yikes!) and is only interested in his military success. If Lady Macbeth was in love with her son, it might look like this.

 


21. Henry V

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Pass: A gentlewoman teaches Catherine, the French Princess, how to speak a few words in English. Because you should never marry an English king unless you know what an “elbow” is.
Characters: 4 female, 40 male
Dialogue ratio: 5% female, 95% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Princess Catherine of France: She doesn’t have much to do here, but is betrothed to King Henry as a way of making peace between the warring nations. 9/10 virtue
There’s the rub: Henry can’t speak French and Catherine can’t speak English – so their “wooing” scene provides one of the funniest moments in the play. The Duke of Burgundy takes advantage of the language barrier to make gags about what she’ll be like in bed, though. Sheesh. Pipe down, Ron.

 


20. Henry VI (Part 2)

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Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? A possible pass. Queen Margaret and her nemesis the Duchess of Gloucester have a tiny argument about…wait for it…a fan.
Characters: 4 female, 55 male
Dialogue ratio: 14% female, 86% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: The Duchess of Gloucester: The second most powerful woman in England. Uses witchcraft to see if she’ll ever steal the throne. It ends badly. 8/10 villain
Queen Margaret: Cheats on the king, and schemes against the men at court. 7/10 villain.
There’s the rub: Both of the leading ladies are painted as being unpleasant schemers, but, hey, at least they’ve got politics on the brain rather than boyfriends.

 


19. King Lear

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Possible pass. In amongst talking about their dad, King Lear, Cordelia throws shade at her sisters.
Characters: 3 female, 23 male
Dialogue ratio: 16% female, 84% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Cordelia: Honest, loving, and forgiving. Her death is one of Shakespeare’s most tragic. 10/10 virtue
Gonoril and Regan: Cordelia’s cruel, power hungry siblings. The original ugly sisters. 10/10 villains
There’s the rub: Cordelia refuses to flatter her dad and he punishes her for it: even so, she personifies goodness and forgiveness. Her vicious sisters, on the other hand, turn King Lear out into a storm, mutilate an old man, and are generally vile. Arguably the cruellest women in Shakespeare.

 


18. Richard III

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Another possible pass. Former Queens Margaret and Elizabeth discuss how much they’ve suffered during the civil war. It’s still based on husbands and sons – but since Elizabeth asks Margaret for advice on delivering curses, let’s give it to them.
Characters: 5 female, 35 male
Dialogue ratio: 23% female, 77% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Queen Margaret: The same Queen Maggie from the Henry VI plays. Still cursing everything with a pulse, but she’s a wise old soul here, too, and sees that Richard is bad news. 5/10 villain
Lady Anne: Villainous Richard convinces her to marry him at the funeral of her last husband. She regrets it quickly enough, though. 6/10 virtuous
There’s the rub: The dialogue split might not show it, but this feels like a play with a strong female presence: as the men fight for power, the cast of royal mothers and wives reveal how much families suffer during war. Each of these characters knows she’s completely dependent on the status of her husband – and, boy, do they suffer for it.

 


17. Twelfth Night

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Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Potential pass. Olivia thinks she’s flirting with a boy called “Cesario” when she’s talking to Viola, but they still talk about things other than men.
Characters: 3 female, 15 male
Dialogue ratio: 32% female, 68% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Viola: Woos Olivia on behalf of Orsino, even though she loves him herself. 9/10 virtue
Olivia: A noblewoman who falls in love with Viola when she’s disguised as Cesario. Breaks out some classic flirting techniques. 9/10 virtue
There’s the rub: Like Rosalind, Viola’s disguised as a boy for most of the play. The plot’s a bit twistier here, though, as Viola courts Olivia for her new boss, Orsino, leading to all sorts of confusion. Viola’s brave, witty, romantic, and all while dealing with the death of her twin brother. Another star.

 


16. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? The two female leads have an hilarious argument, but – fail – it’s about their lovers.
Characters: 8 female (including fairies), 13 male
Dialogue ratio: 30% female, 70% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Titania, the fairy queen: Won’t do as she’s told by her husband, and has a brief, magic-induced fling with a donkey. Which is weird. 6/10 vixen
Hermia and Helena: The mortal female leads. Both low on confidence, and seeking love. 8/10 virtue
There’s the rub: When a naughty fairy casts a spell over the four young leads to make them fall in love with one another, chaos ensues. Helena claims that women can’t fight for love, like men do – but she and Hermia have a good crack at it here and squabble brilliantly over their boyfriends. They may look ridiculous, but they’re definitely not two dimensional.

 


15. Love’s Labour’s Lost

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Fail: it’s all boys, boys, boys.
Characters: 5 female, 15 male
Dialogue ratio: 20% female, 80% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: The Princess and her attendant ladies: all virtuous, witty, and in love. 9/10 virtue
There’s the rub: Almost a traditional Shakespearean comedy, since the king and his servants fall in love with the princess and hers. Usually this would end in marriage – but not here. Instead, the princess and her crew tell the men to try again in twelve months, leaving the story in limbo. Good to see the ladies flexing their romantic muscles.

 


14. Much Ado About Nothing

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Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? There’s a short exchange between two women talking about clothes… But as it’s wedding-dress related, I don’t think we can give them that. Fail.
Characters: 4 female, 14 male
Dialogue ratio: 20% female, 80% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains? Hero: Completely faithful to her man – a solid 10/10 virtue
Beatrice: Like most of us: 50% vixen-50% virtue
There’s the rub: The play’s hilarious heroine and love interest just about saves the day for the ladies: she’s sassy, smart, and completely capable of outwitting the men around her. One of Shakespeare’s strongest women, and the foremother of every clever broad in a rom-com.

 


13. The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? It’s an F: even when one of the heroines is disguised as a page, all she and her love rival talk about is boys.
Characters: 3 female, 13 male
Dialogue ratio: 23% female, 77% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains? Both leading ladies are completely loyal to their daft boyfriends. 10/10 virtue
There’s the rub: This is the first play where Shakespeare gets one of his heroines, Julia, to disguise herself as a boy and go on an adventure. So it looks promising… until she faints in the final act, when it looks like she’s going home single. Letting the side down there, Jools. Room for improvement.

 


12. The Comedy of Errors

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Fail. Once again it’s all chatter about husbands.
Characters: 5 female, 12 male
Dialogue ratio: 27% female, 73% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Adriana: the female lead. While she isn’t exactly bad, she’s crazy jealous and pretty intense when she can’t find her husband. 3/10 villain
Luciana: Adriana’s sister. Comes from the “women should be meek and obedient” school of thought. Drippy and virtuous. 8/10 virtue
There’s the rub: Adriana’s the classic portrayal of a jealous, hen-pecking wife. Pretty unappealing, but arguably less irritating than her wet sister who thinks women should be seen and not heard. Not a good outing for the ladies.

 


11. Henry VI (Part 3)

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Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Total fail – no women actually speak to each other in this one.
Characters: 3 female, 41 male
Dialogue ratio: 13% female, 87% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Queen Margaret: makes her enemy, York, wipe his face with his son’s blood, before stabbing him. Ambitious and badass. 7/10 villain
Lady Gray: Refuses to become King Edward’s mistress, and makes him put a ring on it. 10/10 virtue
There’s the rub: Margaret comes off pretty badly – she schemes, murders and fights to keep her husband on the throne. Potentially a proto-Lady Macbeth but she’s also seriously impressive, leading an army in a civil war. The original Claire Underwood.

 


10. King John

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Fail: Eleanor and Constance bicker, but only about which one of their sons should be king.
Characters: 4 female, 22 male
Dialogue ratio: 14% female, 86% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Eleanor (the King’s mother) and Constance (mother of Arthur, the King’s nephew and arguably true heir to the throne) are right in the thick of it here, swapping insults and fighting their sons’ corners. 6/10 virtue
There’s the rub: Neither of the female leads is particularly likeable, but they’re more than ready to get dirty fighting for their son’s rights. Basically, Renaissance stage mums, but with a throne to think about rather than the lead role in the school play.

 


9. Henry IV (Part 1)

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Fail – zero female conversations.
Characters: 3 female, 31 male
Dialogue ratio: 4% female, 96% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Lady Percy: She can tell her restless husband is up to something – he’s planning a rebellion – and demands to know what’s going on. 6/10 vixen 
There’s the rub: With 4% of the dialogue there’s not much to go on here. Lady Percy may or may not threaten to break her husband’s penis when he refuses to tell her what he’s up to. He completely ignores her, of course, but at least it’s something.

 


8. Henry VI (Part 1)

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Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Fail – another one where the women don’t talk to each other.
Characters: 3 female, 32 male
Dialogue ratio: 13% female, 87% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Joan of Arc: 2/10 virtue
There’s the rub: Joan of Arc’s story is still pretty well known: the young French girl who claimed to see holy visions and led an army against the English. In Shakespeare’s version she talks to demons and accuses several men of being the father of her unborn child: delusional hussy rather than virginal martyr. Which is harsh.

 


7. Troilus and Cressida

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Fail. All the chatter is about the doomed warrior, Hector.
Characters: 4 female, 25 male
Dialogue ratio: 11% female, 89% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Cressida: Declares undying love to Troilus, sleeps with him, and is then busted flirting with Diomedes. 4/10 virtue
There’s the rub: Cressida’s a complicated soul, and doesn’t come out of this well. From the very beginning she freaks out about being unfaithful to Troilus, and is pretty conflicted when she’s flirting with Diomedes. The epitome of female infidelity feared by so many men in fiction – but at least she sees it coming.

 


6. Julius Caesar

Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Fail. The only two women don’t meet.
Characters: 2 female, 51 male
Dialogue ratio: 5% female, 95% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Calpurnia: Trusts the omens showing that her husband, Caesar, will be killed. Begs him to stay at home. 8/10 virtue
Portia: So disturbed by the changing politics in Rome that she kills herself. 8/10 virtue
There’s the rub: Both women play a very small part here. They’re essentially portrayed as loyal wives who know their husbands are caught up in something dangerous.

 


5. The Taming of the Shrew

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Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? It’s another convincing fail. Nothing but husbands here.
Characters: 4 female, 29 male
Dialogue ratio: 12% female, 88% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains? Katherine is the original ball-breaking wildcat, leaving terrified men in her wake. 10/10 vixen
There’s the rub: The play shows a swaggering husband, Petruchio, brutally “taming” his wild wife, Katherine. In the end, she obeys him: but is it Stockholm Syndrome, or have they actually fallen in love as equals? Maybe it’s a damning exploration of male violence, and maybe Katherine finds her match.

 


4. Timon of Athens

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Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Fail. The only two female characters are prostitutes who trade insults with Timon.
Characters: 2 female, 41 male
Dialogue ratio: 0.5% female, 99.5% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Virtue: the two prostitutes insult Timon, then beg for money. 1/10 virtue
There’s the rub: A bit of banter about STDs. That’s all the women bring to this play. Best to gloss over this one.

 


3. Titus Andronicus

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Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Lavinia (Titus’ Roman daughter) begs Tamora (Queen of the Goths) not to let Tamora’s sons rape her. It’s deeply traumatic, and still all about fathers, lovers and sons. Fail.
Characters: 3 female, 20 male
Dialogue ratio: 14% female, 86% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Lavinia: Crudely insults Tamora for having a lover, before being violently attacked. 7/10 virtue
Tamora: Permits her sons to rape Lavinia, and frames Titus’ sons for murder. 8/10 villain
There’s the rub: No other Shakespearean play depicts such graphic violence – against the entire cast, but women in particular. Lavinia is raped, disfigured, and has her tongue cut out so she can’t identify her attackers: she’s literally and symbolically silenced.

 


2. Henry IV (Part 2)

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Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Fail: Doll and Mistress Quickly chat, but it’s all about Falstaff and his friend Pistol.
Characters: 4 female, 47 male
Dialogue ratio: 10% female, 90% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet: Mistress Quickly owns the seedy inn where Prince Hal spends his time, and Doll is a prostitute. Both from the wrong side of the tracks, but loyal and good-hearted. 5/10 virtue
There’s the rub: Doll is the most interesting female character in this essentially male play – foul-mouthed, sentimental and quick-witted; she’s seriously creative with her insults. In one of the final scenes we see her heavily pregnant, about to be whipped by the police.

 


1. Hamlet

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Pass or fail the Bechdel Test? Definite fail – the queen talks to her son’s girlfriend Ophelia once, and, surprise, surprise, it’s about Hamlet. There’s a brief exchange when Ophelia’s gone mad but it’s mainly about love and flowers, so that probably still counts as boy-talk.
Characters: 2 female, 25 male
Dialogue ratio: 9% female, 91% male
Virtuous, vixens or villains: Ophelia: The archetypal wronged woman. 7/10 virtue
Gertrude: The queen’s sex-life is way too complicated. 7/10 vixen
There’s the rub: Hamlet just can’t cope with the idea of his mother sleeping with his dead dad’s brother. It’s not unreasonable for the poor bloke to kick-off – Christmas would be a nightmare – but, according to the men in this play, it’d be ideal if the ladies could all just move to a nunnery. Zero fun.

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