Sunday 7 February 2010

Shakespeare In The Wire

I was watching an episode of The Wire yesterday. There were an awful lot of muthafuckin niggas scattered about. Indeed the oedipus complex seems to be thriving in inner-city Baltimore. Then somebody sent some cops off on a new assignemnt saying "Brave new world for y'all" and I thought "Shakespeare upon the projects".

Brave New World is, of course, the title of an Aldous Huxley novel, but that title was taken from The Tempest V,i where Miranda, who has been brought up by her father on a desert island, finally meets a bunch of humans and exclaims:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't!

Brave didn't mean courageous, any more than cool means cold these days. It's was just a vague word signifying approbation just as wizard did to schoolboys in the 1950s.

Anyway, about a minute later the cops were following the paper trail left by the drug money and someone said "And here's the rub" and that made me sit up. The rub is not street-slang for a coked-up ho. The context was:

In this country? Somebody's name has got to be on a piece of paper. A cousin, a girlfriend, a grandmother, a lieutenant he can trust. Somebody's name is on a piece of paper. And here's the rub: you follow drugs you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money and you don't know where the fuck it's gonna take you.

Now a rub was, once upon a time, an obstruction in bowls. As the Queen says in Richard II when asked if she'd like a game of bowls:

Twill make me think the world is full of rubs
And that my fortune rubs against the bias.

It's was on this basis that Hamlet says in a little-known speech that begins "To be or not to be"

To die, to sleep;
To sleep perchance to dream, ay there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause.

And this particular usage was so influential that "ay there's the rub" has it's own entry in the OED. It went from being a quotation (As Steele used it a 1712 Spectator "her Relations are not Intimates with mine. Ah! there's the Rub") to just being a phrase and ended up in The Wire on the mean streets of Baltimore.

Now it could have been that this was deliberate and an Oxford educated script-writer was playing a little game to amuse himself. But I looked up the original script here and though I found brave new world, the there's the rub scene was actually written as

...a grandmothe,r a lieutenant he can trust, maybe. You get those names you show the connection. And here's the thing. You follow the drugs, you get....

So it seems that the actor was expanding on his script and the two Shakespeare references were pure co-incidence. One of the thousand little intrusions that William Shakespeare makes into our everyday speech.

I spent the rest of the episode planning this post and hoping that somebody would say the word seamy. Nobody did. But as I can tell you're dying to learn. Seamy comes from shirts looking bad inside out because in Othello:

Some such squire it was
That turned your wit the seamy side without
And made you to suspect me with the Moor.

The world's his oyster


  1. The Antipodean15 June 2010 at 15:05

    What about the actor, then? He is a theatre type, and while the various I*DB's have been unable to provide evidence, statistics clearly show that if you're a Broadway type you must've done Shakespeare at some point. (*Unless of course you won some kind of reality contest at any point in your career.)

    I agree with you on Will, I just think you might be emphasising the scriptwriter over the actor. And showbiz types may not be the best sample to assess knowledge of Shakespeare, unwitting or otherwise.

  2. What may be pure coincidence is that major antiheroes are called Avon (as in Stratford upon Avon) and Marlowe (as in Christopher Marlowe).