OK so we’ve talked about the Shakespearean range and depth of Wire characters now the tricky area of themes. I hesitate. There are terabytes of web content out there on this subject already. But then again that in itself is testament to there being something worth talking about – as of course in dear old Shakespeare.
I think the most obvious parallel on the themes front is the number of them. Unlike so much we see on screens big and small The Wire doesn't spout a single, simple message. Its themes are layered and interlocking. Just like life, you can find different meanings all over. Shakespeare did that too.
At its simplest The Wire is about a modern American city, Baltimore. Over the five seasons it slowly zooms-out, revealing the interlacing communities, institutions, generations and moralities that make up modern urban life. To me that evocation of a polis or a kingdom is very Shakespearean. It could be Caesar's Rome, Henry's England or even Prospero's (remembered)Milan. It is place as an overarching character and place as ideas. Like Shakespeare's kingdoms Wirean Baltimore has dynasties that stretch back to a remembered golden past. When we look at this kingdom at a tighter level we come to the institutions - be they the Baltimore PD, labour unions, schools or local politics. The Wire explores in great depth the love-hate, nurture-destroy, structure-chaos of our relationship with institutions. Unlike so much screen fiction, bred as it is from the romantic adventurer tradition, here institutions dominate individuals however strong those individuals are as characters. To me, all this echoes Shakespeare's explorations of kingship, dynasty and the institutions of power in his time.
I don't have space for all the other themes nor Shakespeare parallels for each. The point I think is there are overarching themes, season themes, story themes and character themes, not to mention some plainly random ones. This rich mix is Shakespearean. To finish just two themes I value both connected and both around the drugs trade. First, The Wire uniquely, in my experience anyway, shows the drugs business as just that, a business. "The Game" as it's shown pits Barksdale, Bell et al as ruthless entrepreneurs first and criminals second. Look at their decisions, right or wrong, all motivated by commercial considerations. The second theme is the even darker side of the first. It is the agonising irony that the black drug-businessman have become 21st century slave owners (most of the "slaves" being black too). The slaves? Those lines of hopeless, faceless addicts chained to their next fix. They really are owned by those that supply their addiction.