Saturday, October 27, 2012

Feminism in Film: Shakespeare in Love

Each week, I'll be watching and reviewing one Oscar winning Best Picture film. I wanted to go in order by year, but I'm limited to what's immediately available on Netflix because there is no Blockbuster near me at school.

Reviewing, that is, in terms of feminism and if the film passes the Bechdel Test. What is the Bechdel Test? In order to pass, a film must have at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than men.

First up? Shakespeare in Love!

Initial Thoughts
I have always loved this film. As a theatre major who loves Shakespeare, this film is wonderful. Full of references to his works. Also, Joseph Fiennes is fiercely attractive and Gwyneth Paltrow is excellent.

The Critique
Shakespeare in Love definitely highlights a noble woman's responsibility during Queen Elizabeth's reign. In one scene between Lord Wessex and Viola's father, Wessex asks if Viola is obedient, the reply is "As any mule in Christendom - but if you are the man to ride her, there are rubies in the saddlebag". How awful! The two men also discuss whether she will breed. Disgusting. But, this type of conversation was commonplace at the time. Queen Elizabeth refers to Viola as being "plucked", meaning she is no longer a virgin. I for one am glad that no one actually says that anymore. As if virginity is the only thing a woman has to offer a man.

But there is something to be said for a woman pretending to be a male actor. It's a brilliant play on Shakespeare's comedies, for women were always pretending to be men. Viola was not allowed to be an actor, so she pretended to be a man. I love Queen Elizabeth's quote, "I know something of a woman in a man's profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that". Pure brilliance.  

The Bechdel Test
*two named women? YES (Rosaline, Queen Elizabeth, Viola)
*who talk to each other? YES (Queen Elizabeth and Viola)
*about something other than men? MEH... 
        I'm on the fence about this last part. Yes, Queen Elizabeth and Viola talk to each other, in the one conversation between two women. They have a brief conversation about whether a play can truly depict the nature of love. Do they talk about men? No. But they talk about love. To me, that's basically the same thing. Viola is directly referencing her relationship with Shakespeare, who is a man. During Elizabethan times, love was strictly between a man and a woman. So while technically no men are mentioned during this exceptionally brief conversation, I am ultimately saying NO, this film does not pass the Bechdel Test.

Final Rating
Two stars

More named women who have lengthy conversations, please! I sure do hope the other Oscar winners fare better.


  1. ineresting too, that Judi Dench got herself an Oscar for her role as the Queen with only 8 minutes of screen time! was it not a good year for women in cinema?

    1. What's strange is that the other Best Picture nominees included Elizabeth (starring Cate Blanchett), and she was nominated for Best Actress. Paltrow and Blanchett were the only two big names in that category. I'm also going to go out on a limb and say that the other Best Supporting Actress nominees had much more screen time than Dench. Curious. I don't really understand how a movie like this swept the main Oscars.