Hands are the agents of human action. Feet may carry us. Words may move us (metaphorically). But it is hands to do the work.
You might even say that if eyes are mirrors to the soul, then hands are mirrors to the man (or woman).
And “hands” are a focal point in Titus Andronicus.
Discounting derivatives — like “handmaid,” “handless,” and “handle” — the words “hand” and “hands” are used over sixty times in the play. Ironically enough (or not), it is Lavinia who first uses the term: upon Titus’ return to Rome, she requests, “O bless me here with thy victorious hand” (I.i.166). Titus’ hand is tool he uses to be victorious. And according to Saturninus, it is not only Titus’ own victory that the general’s hands creates: the new emperor accuses Titus of saying that Saturninus “begged the empire at (Titus’) hands” (I.i.310). Titus’ hands bring not only victory, but death as well, as “With his own hand did he slay his youngest son” (I.i.421), Mutius, when he attempts to stop Titus from pursuing Bassianus and Lavinia.
Death is outcome of hands’ actions in the next three references: Aaron both “death in my hands” (II.iii.38) and “Thy sons…wash their hands in Bassianus’ blood” (II.iii.45), as well as Lavinia’s plea that Tamora be “a gentle queen // And with (her) own hands kill (Lavinia)” (II.iii.168-169), rather than allow Chiron and Demetrius to rape her.
Later, after the rape, the rapists use the words as mocks to Lavinia:
Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands.
She hath no tongue to call, nor hands to wash;
And so let’s leave her to her silent walks.
An ’twere my case, I should go hang myself.
If thou hadst hands to help thee knit the cord.
— II.iv.6-10, emphasis mine
Here, her rapists and mutilators become her tormentors as well, using the word “hands” purely as objects, objects she no longer has. Marcus finds Lavinia, and in his speech following notes “ungentle hands” (II.iv.16) did the mutilation, and that Lavinia’s former musical prowess was linked to “those lily hands // (that) Tremble like aspen leaves upon a lute” (II.iv.44-45).
Again, the hands as agents of action.
It is not until Marcus brings Lavinia to her father that Titus first uses the term: “Speak, Lavinia, what accursed hand // Hath made thee handless in they father’s sight?” (III.i.66-67). That first use begins a flood of uses. We are less than two hundred lines from the midpoint of the play when Titus first uses the term. However, it is Titus that uses the term most: 30 times, a full half of all uses (in just a little over half the play). And what uses for hands:
- hands “made thee handless” (III.i.67)
- hands “fought for Rome” (III.i.73)
- hands “cut” (III.i.78)
- hands “do Rome service” (III.i.80)
- hands “warded (Rome) // From thousand dangers” (III.i.194-195)
Though Titus sees hands as the agents of action, it’s action that he wants to end. Even before Aaron arrives, Titus offers to “chop off (his) hands too” (III.i.72) and Marcus and Titus to “cut away (their) hands like (Lavinia)” (III.i.130). When Aaron enters, the male Andronici are ready to relinquish their hands, to end their action. They are defeated.
And after Titus’ hand is cut off by Aaron, the general’s use of the word becomes purely objective; he speaks of the “poor right hand of (his) // Is left to tyrannize upon (his) breast…Then thus (he) thump(s) it down” (III.ii.7-8,11). It, and all hands for Titus, have become useless and actionless, and can do nothing.
Nothing that is until he has Chiron and Demetrius under his knife, when “this one hand yet is left to cut (their) throats” (V.ii.181). And only then can Titus begin to use his hand as an agent of action, first killing Chiron and Demetrius, then his daughter (after he has used the word “hand” for the final time), and then finally Tamora.
His hand has accomplished its final action, and so he can die (and does).
Interesting tangent to end today: Marcus, when first viewing Lavinia’s mutilated body, wonders who “hath lopped and hewed and made (Lavinia’s) body bare // Of her two branches” (II.iv.17-18). Branches. Branches are the perches for birds. And Lucius, as new emperor, decrees that Tamora’s “life was beastly and devoid of pity, // And being dead, let birds on her take pity” (V.iii.199-200). Something to chew on… next week, we’ll hit that wood metaphor more.