The severed hand

IIn one scene (3.1.) Titus is confronted successively with the threat to the lives of his sons, with the spectacle of the mutilated Lavinia, with the loss of his hand, and with the sight of his son's heads. In the presumed sources to the play - The Ballad of Titus Andronicus and the chapbook story on Titus Andronicus they are presented as three different stages.[17] The element that ensures the unitary treatment of these moments of horror is the severed hand. We have already indicated that severed hands in the early modern period were invested with a heavy load of meanings, signifying the dismemberment of the body politic, the silencing of eloquence and the universal breakdown of language, the loss of agency (both Lavinia and Titus will henceforth be helpless, marginal and heart was also looked upon as the metonymic extension of the self, or as a second self. (Neill, 39) In this context Titus's willing surrender of his hand can imply an act of heroism, of Roman virtus , in which he has severed himself from a "second self". There is a note of defiance in the offer that Titus makes of his hand :

Good Aaron, give his majesty my hand;

Tell him it was a hand that warded him

From thousand dangers; bid him bury it.

More hath it merited; that let it have. (3.1.195-198)

Michael Neill's discussion of the meanings that Shakespeare's contemporaries associated with the hand can be of great use in teasing out the significances of Titus's severed limb. The hand was associated with the head and the heart; it was looked upon as a locus of agency that represented the self. At the same time it could be identified as another, almost independent self that could be held responsible for the errors of the self and consequently scapegoated. (Neill. 41)

Looked at from this perspective, the hand stands as a metonymy for the Titus that stood up for the emperor, that actually installed him and promoted the absolutist ideology that could "protect" him and could "ward him from thousand dangers". Titus becomes fully aware of his mistakes and separates himself from this self that had helped and supported the emperor. The hand is scapegoated/sacrificed to preserve the integrity of his head and heart. Titus seems to be patterning his action upon the gesture of the archbishop Cranmer who punished the hand that had written his recantation and thrust it into the flames.(Neill, 41) The action proves strong bodily discipline and observes the biblical injunction: "And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off" (Mark, 9:43). In a contemporary play , The Rape of Lucrece, Thomas Heywood has his character Scaevolla thrust his right hand into the fire as a punishment for his own failure.It is interesting that unlike Scaevolla, Titus has his left hand severed. This might suggest split alliances: Titus dissociates himself from the self that has served the emperor, a self metonymically represented by his left hand, but he does not separate himself from the self that can serve Rome, his right hand. The left _the sinister - hand has always been invested with different, rather derogatory, meanings from the ones attached to the right one. The left hand is the despised, humble auxiliary, which by itself can do nothing. It does not connote physical strength, intellectual rectitude and moral integrity, but rather its opposite. If the right hand stands for me, the left one stands for the not me, the other. (Neill, 24) This is the hand that Titus offers the emperor; this may be the self that he is willing to surrender after Lavinia's rape.

The gory act of having a hand cut off on the stage would have reminded Shakespeare's audience of a very famous public execution in which John Stubbs had his right hand (not his left hand) amputated for writing a treatise that decried the queen's proposed marriage to the duke of Allencon. The punishment generated a sense of outrage but at the same time it proved the extraordinary symbolic value that was invested in the hand. Cutting off the right hand was thought to be tantamount to silencing a voice that contested the queen's intentions. (Elizabeth herself "declared that she would rather lose a hand herself than mitigate ..the punishment"(quoted in Ray, 23.) The punishment was further thought to imply that the body politic, through its representative, was deprived of its right to express concern about the way it was ruled, a right that was derived from the consent that the body politic had given at the coronation. The amputation of the right hand was a powerful symbolic strategy of reinforcing the monarch's absolute power, a power that thus verged on being tyrannical.

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