Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous –
Almost, at times, the Fool.
- Aside from Dante, the poet whom Eliot loved most was Shakespeare. So here’s a Shakespeare reference.
- In Hamlet, the title character is an indecisive chap, much like Prufrock has been for most of the poem. Hamlet can’t decide whether or not to kill his uncle, even though his uncle has committed some really awful crimes. Like Prufrock, Hamlet can seem like a coward who talks too much. But now Prufrock says he’s not like Hamlet, after all.
- And if you like puns, the end of line 111 has a good one. In the play, Hamlet begins his most famous speech: "To be or not to be, that is the question." You might even say it’s an "overwhelming question." But Prufrock has already made a decision on that question: he was not "meant to be."
- Prufrock compares himself to a minor character in the play, one of the "attendants" who serve the king. We think he’s talking about Polonius.
- In Hamlet, Polonius is the father of Ophelia, the heroine, and everyone respects him because he always takes the cautious route and acts like "an easy tool." Even Shakespeare uses him to "start a scene or two" in the play, then kills him off around the midway point.
- Polonius talks a good game – he uses fancy words ("high sentence") and proverbs – but in the end, he’s kind of a dunce. As Prufrock so cautiously puts it, he’s "almost ridiculous" and almost like "the Fool."
- With this recognition, Prufrock has finally arrived at a pretty honest assessment of himself. It’s a bit late, however, to do anything about it. It’s never good to just say, "Yeah I’m a tool, but, oh, well."