This Is Not a Listicle: On the Shakespearean Origins of 'The Blacklist'

James Spader hunts bad guys while our TV critic does some research.

Eric Liebowitz/NBC

Try as hard as we may, we are usually slightly behind the times. Both HOT and Yes make a valiant effort to bring us the hottest new series and seasons on the same day and hour they are sprung upon American viewers (even if it means you are expected to watch “Game of Thrones” before dawn in Israel). But more often than not we join the throng of (local) ratings providers a couple of weeks after a series or season has already started at its original source.

Such is the case of “The Blacklist,” a criminal-procedural series broadcast by NBC that embarked on its second 22-episode season in the U.S. on September 22, and in Israel only on October 26 on Yes Stars Action. An FBI agent, Raymond “Red” Reddington, went rogue in the past, turned to crime, and became a very successful international “concierge of crime,” brokering shady deals among many miscreants and solving tense standoffs with a blazing gun.

In the first episode of the first season, back in October 2013, Red had seemingly recanted, and is willing to mend his ways and rejoin the fold. They take him back, unwillingly and under protest, as he comes along with an offer they would prefer to refuse. The list referred to in the title contains the names of those very same miscreants, all of them unknown to the FBI. Red, for reasons of his own, is more than willing to help the agency – or let it help him – to apprehend or annihilate them, whichever comes first. He insists only upon choosing his handler, a rookie female profiler, and they have to give in. It seems there is a hidden link between her and Red, and this is part of the bait that keeps viewers hooked. Each episode carries the title of the criminal who is being chased within it.

Before going into further detail and getting entangled in my efforts to say something about the series without stumbling on spoilers, I conducted a little research on your behalf, as to the origin of the word “blacklist,” with its negative connotations.

One of the first users of the word “list” in the sense of “a catalogue consisting of a row or series of names, figures, words, or the like” (OED) was William Shakespeare, in the first scene of “Hamlet.” Horatio informs the prince that “young Fortinbras, / Of unimproved mettle hot and full, / Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there / Shark’d up a list of lawless resolutes.” Please note that the first list we hear of in English is of “lawless resolutes.”

The color black was mentioned in a shady context for the first time in English (so says OED) sometime in the 14th century. Robert Mannyng (or Robert of Brunne) (c. 1275 – c. 1338) was an English chronicler and Gilbertine monk, and in his book “Handlyng Synn” writes “Whan thou synnest, thou... makest thy soule black as pyk.”

The man who packed those two words into one “portmanteau” word was Bishop Joseph Hall, in 1624, in “The true peace-maker: Laid forth in a sermon before his Majesty at Theobalds”: “Hear this, then, wheresoever ye are, ye secret oppressors, ye profane scoffers, ye foulmouthed swearers, ye close adulterers, ye kind drunkards, and whoever come within this black list of wickedness; how can ye be loyal, while you lodge traitors in your bosoms? Protest what ye will, your sins break the peace, and conspire against the sacred crown and dignity of your sovereign.”

Since then, we have been blacklisting our fellow men and women, and Red’s overt motive for turning back from a criminal into a law-enforcer is spelled out in Bishop Hall’s admonition. He does have, however, many other hidden agendas, and those are for us to guess. The list itself is one of the “arcs” that hold the episodes of the series, and its seasons, together: in theory it will be as long as the list is, and there is always the possibility that Red (as if to highlight for us that he is not all black) makes the list as we all go along.

The actor who portrays Red is James Spader, known to serial series viewers as the fast-talking and soft-spoken amoral lawyer Alan Shore in two legal series, “The Practice” and “Boston Legal.” He is the only actor who won two consecutive Emmys as best actor in the same part in two different series. As a lawyer, Spader was handsome, blond, blue-eyed, poker-faced, with the ability to say the most outrageous words with a bland smile. In “The Blacklist” he is fat, bald, with drooping eyelids, and has the same ability to shoot his mouth off, only with a propensity to place a bullet where his mouth was.

I watched some episodes of season 1, and the first one of season 2 – we are still chasing a criminal nicknamed Berlin who has an ax to grind (and this is not a metaphor) with Red. I thought it resembled a ditty I’d once heard, and while gearing up to write this column it hit me. What the series and Red remind me of is Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” (1885): “As some day it may happen that a victim must be found, / I’ve got a little list - I’ve got a little list / Of society offenders who might well be underground, / And who never would be missed - who never would be missed!”

And I would have left you with the notion that the menacing Red is really kind of a harmless character from an operetta, but Gilbert’s lyrics got hold of me:

“And that Nisi Prius nuisance, who just now is rather rife, / The Judicial humorist - I’ve got him on the list! / All funny fellows, comic men, and clowns of private life - / They’d none of ’em be missed - they’d none of ’em be missed. / And apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind, / Such as - What d’ye call him - Thing’em-bob, and likewise - Never-mind, / And ’St- ’st- ’st- and What’s-his-name, and also You-know-who - / The task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you. / But it really doesn’t matter whom you put upon the list, / For they’d none of ’em be missed - they’d none of ’em be missed!”

And that goes for you as well, dear reader. It doesn’t really matter whom you put upon the list – as long as you don’t miss an episode.