How “I Hate Hamlet” Leads to “Prufrock as Prince of Oyster-Shells”

September 12, 2019

About a week after my mother died, I attended the first meeting of the school year, a gathering of three dozen incoming M.A. students at CSU Long Beach. Each person in attendance was asked to introduce themselves not just with their names and citations of their alma maters as well as major research interests, but with the title of a book they read during the summer “for fun.”

The preponderance of books mentioned in the course of playing this familiar game in which one usually aspires to sound “casual yet sharp” (Dennis Cooper’s phrase about late 1970s/early 1980s West Coast wardrobe) leaned towards the high brow end of authors, but I couldn’t resist being flippant.

“Fun reading?” I asked, as if repeating the question to make sure I’d heard it correctly. “Isn’t all reading fun?” I paused. “I Hate Hamlet,” I said, “by a playwright I’d never heard of before, Paul Rudnick.” I paused again. “It’s about a television soap opera star who is cast in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Hamlet. It’s the funniest piece of meta-theater I’ve read in a long time. Instead of Hamlet’s father, though, the ghost that appears is of John Barrymore.”

I doubt my brief description convinced anyone in the room to run out and get a copy, but it’s their loss. I thought of the play again yesterday when I was teaching Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which is easily the most important dramatic monologue in 20th century American and British poetry. For the first time, I truly paid attention to the line:

“No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.”

Why does Prufrock feel the need to include Hamlet’s rank? Why not simply:

“No, I am not Hamlet, nor was meant to be.”

It’s not as if readers would confuse the citation with someone else. Seriously, what the odds of someone thinking, “Hmmm, Prufrock has mentioned Lazarus earlier, and I’ve read the Bible, so that’s an easy identification, but does Hamlet refer to the protagonist of one of Shakespeare’s most daunting plays or to some other person?”

It would seem, therefore, that even in that small touch, Eliot has nudged us with a reminder that it is not just the women who give an edge to their habitual name-dropping, and that social rank matters to this character even more than we suspected.

I should add that one of the quiet jokes in Rudnick’s play comes towards the end, when Felicia Dentine, a real estate agent, discloses that she is not familiar with this particular masterpiece by Shakespeare. In fact, having left the premiere performance after the first act for a dalliance with a new acquaintance, she asks the lead actor with all sincerity how the story turns out: “You’re king now, right?”

Mirthful sighs are rare.

There is one other line I’d like to mention in “Prufrock” that doesn’t get enough attention. Until recently, I’d always regarded “and sawdust restaurants with oyster shells” as the kind of urban detail meant to indicate how Prufrock is living a double life; the social world of the working-class has more than an alluring, raffish charm for this reticent voyeur. In point of fact, the “oyster shells” have more than literal intent; rather, they are a foreshadowing symbol of the image that most tellingly reveals Prufrock’s degree of abjection: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silence seas.” And when we finish the poem, it is by looking back from the shore-line out to where we see Prufrock “not waving, but drowning” that we can appreciate what a subtle clue to the outcome Eliot offered us at the outset.