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"Forward Backward" Time and the Apocalypse in Hamlet Maurice Hunt Ophelia's remarkable description ofa distraught, disheveled Hamlet leaving her chamber figures a paradoxical simultaneous "forward backward" movement of time in the play, one enriching (and enriched by) its apocalyptic overtones: At last, a little shaking of mine arm, And thrice his head thus waving up and down, He rais'd a sigh so piteous and profound As it did seem to shatter all his bulk And end his being. That done, he lets me go, And with his head over his shoulder turn'd He seem'd to find his way without his eyes, For out o' doors he went without their helps, And to the last bended their light on me.1 (2.1.92-100) EricLevyhasfoundsignificantmeaningin this contortedexit ofHamlet's: Hamlet turns his head back toward Ophelia, and continues to gaze at her face while his body moves ineluctably forward—as ifin leaving the room he is also leaving his awareness there in the chamber, for the part walking away remains sightless and distracted. By this extraordinary gesture ("with his head over his shoulder turn'd"), Hamlet seems to confirm an inaccessible past, from which he is now forever separated, as Orpheus was from Eurydice because he looked back at her as he was leading her away from Hades, realm of the dead, toward return to the living.... But whereas Orpheus's gesture is involuntary, Hamlet's is deliberate, at least at some level. His need is, not to be reunited with Ophelia, but to feel irrevocably sundered from her and the past which she comes to represent. Significantly , this associating of Ophelia with the past is reinforced later by her own madness:"There's rosemary,that's for remembrance—prayyou,love, remember." (IV.v.173-4)2 379 380Comparative Drama Whether one agrees with Levy's provocative reading of Hamlets odd departure, one cannot deny that his interpretation involves the issue of time, in this case "an inaccessible past" that Hamlet seems to feel the need to forget and to remember (that backward stare) at one and the same time. And yet it is possible to interpret Hamlet's strange departure and its relation to time in a different way. In fact, a later image in the play encourages playgoers and readers to do so. The memorable image of a forward backward-turned progress of Hamlet, out ofOphelia's closet, complements a remarkable metaphor of Hamlet's in act 2.When Polonius asks Hamlet in the second scene ofthis act to identify the "matter" he reads, the prince "madly" replies: Slanders,sir.For the satirical rogue sayshere that old men have graybeards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plumtree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams—all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down. For yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am—iflike a crab you could go backward. (2.2.196-204) Possibly Hamlet's utterance alludes to the crab apple, which could be said to "go backward" in the sense that it violates a common aging process by being sour to the taste early in its lifetime but sweet later.3 The popular belief that crustaceans called crabs can only move forward or sideways encourages the crab apple reading of Hamlet's utterance. Nevertheless, according to the testimony ofthe crustacean specialist in the Baylor University Department of Biology, "There is no doubt that crabs can walk backward, and they do so with approximately the same frequency and dexterity that humans walk backward: not very well, not very fast, and not very often."4 Hamlet most likely refers to the infrequently seen locomotion of the crustacean, if only because this reading correlates with the prince's strange way of exiting Ophelia's chamber. Even then, the image of Hamlet leaving Ophelia's closet and that of the crab going backward are not exactly alike. Hamlet walks forward; only his head is turned back. He suggests that the crab points one way and scuttles another, its fixed head...


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pp. 379-399
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