Article Title

"Forward Backward" Time and the Apocalypse in Hamlet


Maurice Hunt


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Ophelia’s remarkable description of a 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)

Eric Levy has found significant meaning in this contorted exit of Hamlet’s:

Hamlet turns his head back toward Ophelia, and continues to gaze at her face while his body moves ineluctably forward—as if in 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—pray you, love, remember’ (IV.v.173–4).2

Whether one agrees with Levy’s provocative reading of Hamlet’s 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.


1 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins, Arden Shakespeare, Second Series (London: Methuen, 1982). All quotations of Hamlet are taken from this edition. All other quotations of Shakespeare plays are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, updated 4th edition (New York: Longman, 1997).

2 Eric P. Levy, “‘The Time is Out of Joint’: The Resetting of Time in Hamlet,” The Critical Review 40 (2000):32–46, esp. 42. Levy also associated the image of Hamlet walking forward with his head turned over his shoulder with the contortion of “the false diviners or soothsayers in the fourth bolgia or pouch of Dante’s Inferno. There the torment of the damned is to have their heads twisted 180 degrees on their necks: ‘because he wished to see too far before him [that is, into the future], he looks behind and makes his way backwards’ (Inferno, XX. 38–9). Hamlet’s plight exactly reverses their predicament. Because he wishes to look behind (that is, at the past), he is hampered in his movement ahead. The link with the Inferno is tightened by Ophelia’s associating of Hamlet’s plight with the state of damnation: ‘As if he had been loosed from hell’ (2.1.83)” (42–43). Commentators on Shakespeare’s plays have generally agreed, however, that Shakespeare almost certainly did not read Dante’s Commedia, since it did not exist in English translation and few copies in Italian were available in England.

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