Essentially the song is about attitudes towards corruption and privilege. In that the narrator seems to speak dismissively of the main characters in describing them as ‘the joker’ and ‘the thief’ respectively, he may be ironically representing society’s attitudes to those who fail to accept its norms. Nevertheless the joker’s criticisms seem serious.
Like Lear’s fool, he is a wise joker, understanding the true state of the world. He sees that true values are going unappreciated – and in particular that certain sections of society (‘businessmen’) are benefiting at the expense of others (‘ploughmen’). Like the joker, the thief is also presented positively. He calms the joker down and speaks ‘kindly’ to him. His use of the phrase ‘You and I’, putting the joker on a level with himself, seems deliberately unpatronising. It also, by way of contrast, emphasises the very unegalitarian attitudes of those about whom the joker is complaining. He may be dismissed as a thief by those who determine society’s attitudes, but his values are in fact sound. It could, for all we know, be the selfish attitude of the better off, rather than his own inclination, which has forced him to become a thief (see below).
Previously it seems both he and the joker had dismissed what life had in store for them as a joke, but no longer. Now, he says, they are both ‘through that’, meaning presumably that they see there’s no point in complaining – or getting ‘excited’- about things being wrong. The expression he uses is ‘we’ve been through that’ which perhaps captures the idea of having suffered (i.e. been through a lot) as well as having seen through the idea that complaining is likely to be purposeful. Seeing life as a joke will achieve nothing, but there’s no need for them to continue being negative. The thief characterises their previous attitude as false, suggesting that the only proper approach is to recognise true values. ‘The hour is getting late’ shows the thief’s awareness of life’s brevity and the need to act appropriately before the opportunity is lost.
The final four lines tell us what is wrong with life – why it might be dismissed as a joke. The images are of luxurious living and unnecessary poverty – princes, women who came and went (but apparently didn’t do anything worth mentioning), contrasting with servants whose wages aren’t enough to buy shoes. Where the thief represents egalitarian attitudes in his treatment of the joker, by contrast the princes and the women represent privilege and repression. The phrase ‘while all the women came and went’ is reminiscent of T.S.Eliot’s ‘In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo’. Dylan’s women are presumably therefore equally well-to-do, and equally pretentious. They can be taken to represent the sorts of imperfection and corruption which lead the downtrodden to dismiss life as a joke. Interestingly, instead of ‘the women come and go’, Dylan has ‘the women came and went’, the past tense emphasising that time has moved on – ‘the hour is getting late’.
The princes can be taken to represent those who are in a position to improve the lot of others, but don’t. It’s significant that their watchfulness is described as being ‘all along the watchtower’. The phrase echoes the earlier ‘None of them along the line know what any of it is worth’. It would seem, therefore, that ‘them along the line’ refers at least in part to the princes. If the line is the hierarchical ordering of society, they are among those in that order who have no idea of true worth, and who accordingly fail to see how the world’s resources should be distributed. This is crucial since they, as princes, and therefore at the top of the order, are in the best position to put things right. That they ‘kept the view’ suggests that rather than do this their whole aim was to keep things the same. Nevertheless, in spite of their precautions to preserve the lifestyles of both the privileged and the exploited, the outlook is ominous. The wildcat growling, and the howling wind, represent Nature’s disapproval. And the two riders approaching suggests that the thief is right that ‘the hour is getting late’, that the time for a change of outlook is now.
The point about corruption, and its resolution being about to occur, is reinforced by the song’s religious allusions. The thief is reminiscent of the ‘good thief’ on Calvary. There are faint echoes of Christ’s ‘I am the way, the truth and the life…’ (John 14:6) in both the joker’s and the thief’s language. The joker is looking for a ‘way’ out, and the thief recommends truth – ‘So let us not talk falsely now’. If the wine is taken to be Christ’s blood, as at the Last Supper, then the complaint is that many have failed to recognise Christian values. And the wildcat which growls might remind us of Eliot’s ‘Christ the tiger’ – Christ preparing to mete vengeance on those who’ve ignored Christian precepts.
In addition, the joker’s language, when he refers to ‘my wine’ and ‘my earth’, associates him with the Old Testament prophets who would often refer to God in the first person. This is appropriate since the joker, like the prophets, is drawing attention to social norms which would be abhorrent to a good God. The use of expressions such as ‘watchtower’, ‘princes’ and ‘two riders’, all from the account in Isaiah of the fall of Babylon (Isaiah 21:5-9), also helps reinforce the idea that there’s nothing ultimately to be gained from corruption and privilege.