Toward the end of Wes Anderson’s new movie The Grand Budapest Hotel, the meticulous concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) helpfully provides a brief recap of the rather convoluted events of the caper thus far. He concludes, “The plot thickens, as they say,” before adding, “Why, by the way? Is it a soup metaphor?” Well, is it a soup metaphor?
No. Though one dictionary of English phrases refer to the expression as “a metaphor within a metaphor,” the story of how it came to be is relatively straightforward, and stretches all the way back to 17th-century English drama—or at least to parodies of it. In fact, it seems that the phrase has always been something of a joke.
The first known instance of the phrase comes from The Rehearsal (1671), a satirical play written by the statesman and poet George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham. Villiers meant to make a mockery of the so-called heroic plays of John Dryden, the poet laureate of the time, and depicts the efforts to put on one such play. In the play-within-a-play, Bayes, the Drydenesque playwright, surveys the action of his play, and comments approvingly, “Ay, now the plot thickens very much upon us.” Villiers’ parody was successful enough to be reprinted in collections of English drama—not to mention collections of Dryden’s work—ever since.
And poor Dryden would find himself at the butt-end of the phrase again. After he wrote The Hind and the Panther (1687), a lengthy poem and fable in which a hind (a deer) and a panther debate religion, some critics found the idea of animals debating religion to be rather ridiculous. Two such critics were Matthew Prior and Charles Montagu, who that same year penned The Hind and the Panther Transvers’d to the Story of the Country-Mouse and the City-Mouse. In the parody, the Dryden figure, once again rendered as “Bayes,” tells his audience, “But now, Gentleman, the plot thickens, here comes my t’other mouse, the City Mouse.”
The association with “Bayes” and hackwork outlived the days of Dryden. In Christopher Smart’s mock epic poem The Hilliad (1753), which was just one shot fired in the beef between Smart and the writer John Hill, the phrase appears again, credited to “Mr. Bayes.” In the 19th century, the phrase was popular in parodies of Victorian melodramas. As Julia Cresswell writes in her 2007 Penguin Book of Clichés, the phrase “is now unlikely to be found used except as a joke or a conscious cliché.” Perhaps it was always so.
As for how a plot could thicken, plot was already used to refer to “the plan or scheme of a literary or dramatic work,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, by the time of Bayes (earlier definitions include “a small piece of ground” and then “a ground plan”). Thicken appears to have been used figuratively. The word already had the widely recognized definitions “to make … dense” and “to fill up the interstices or intervals of,” and it’s not a big jump from there to the later definition “to become more complex or intricate.” When I asked Jesse Sheidlower, the president of the American Dialect Society, whether there might be anything more to it—perhaps anything to do with soup?—he told me, “trying to read more into it is, well, the kind of thing a Wes Anderson character would do.”
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