Bob Dylan And Prince Hamlet

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By Larry Fyffe

The narrator in the poem quoted below compares himself to William Shakespeare’s character Hamlet and finds that it is the Prince who is lacking in fortitude:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was I meant to be
Politic, cautious, and meticulous
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse
At times almost ridiculous

(TS Eliot: The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock)

The narrator in the following song lyrics asserts that, unlike the Danish Prince, neither is he cowardly:

You don't know me, darling, you never would guess
I'm nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest
I ain't no false prophet, I just said what I said
I'm just here to bring vengeance on somebody's head

(Bob Dylan: False Prophet)

As we shall see, Bob Dylan intends to have his revenge on TS Eliot for the poet’s critique of Shakespeare’s Danish play.

The persona of the poet and of the singer/songwriter are both well aware of their mortality:

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought to me on a platter
I am no prophet - and here's no great matter
I have seen the moment of of my greatness flicker
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker

(TS Eliot: The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock)

Below, a metonymic piano serves to express the same sentiment:

You can bring it to St. Peter, you can bring it to St. Jerome
You can bring it all the way over, bring it all the way home
Bring it to the corner where the children play
You can bring it to me on a silver tray

(Bob Dylan: My Own Version Of You)

Personification in the following lyrics summons a yawn:

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers
Asleep  - tired - or it malingers
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me

(TS Eliot: The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock)

Diction rather similar appears in the song lyrics below:

Deepening shadows gather splendour as day is done
Fingers of light will soon surrender the setting sun
I count the moments darling 'till you're here with me
Together at last at twilight time

(The Platters: Twilight Time ~ Ram/Dunn/A&M Nevins)

TS Eliot claims that the Shakespeare’s Danish play fails to capture the disdain that the Prince has for his mother’s marriage to Hamlet’s uncle; there are no adequate ‘objective correlatives’ therein to invoke the mood of her son, says Eliot; the play is not so much about Hamlet’s revenge for his father’s death as it is about his emotional struggle due to Gertrude’s lascivious behaviour.

Bob Dylan is not anxious to make the same mistake; the song “Murder Most Foul” centres on the assassination of President John Kennedy – it draws on Shakespeare’s play:

Murder most foul, as in the best it is
But this most foul, strange and unnatural

(William Shakespeare: Hamlet, Act I, sc. 5)

The music surrounding those days, and after, that Dylan listens to, including the Platter’s song quoted above, the singer/songwriter tells his listeners to play in order to catch the mood of the times when the murder happens.

Some of the musical ‘objective correlatives’ listed are:

  • Cry Me A River
  • Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
  • Saint James Infirmary
  • Driving Wheel
  • Memphis In June
  • Lonely At The Top
  • Love Me Or Leave Me
  • Nature Boy

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One comment

  1. *Perhaps, taking another shot at TS, or any critic for that matter:

    Can you tell me what it means, ‘to be or not to be’?
    You won’t get away with fooling me
    (Bob Dylan: My Own Version Of You)

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