Funny thing. While sifting through The Third Part of Henry the Sixth on a second go, I found a couple of references to hands that hearken back to Titus Andronicus and its use (and abuse) of limbs. If you remember Titus, Lavinia’s rapists cut off her hands (as well as her tongue) to prevent her from implicating them. Later, under a false offer to release Titus’ two imprisoned sons, Titus, his brother Marcus, and Titus’ other son Lucius, all offer to cut off their hands to win the release. Titus sacrifices his hand to the villain Aaron, but wins no release of his sons.
As in Titus, the references here also refer to mutilation, and here specifically self-mutilation.
In Act Five, Scene One, after Edward and Richard have demanded that Warwick surrender, the Kingmaker says,
I had rather chop this hand off at a blow,
And then with the other fling at they face,
Than bear so low a sail to strike to thee.
Here, the self-mutilation is an act of defiance, of using his own body part as a missile against Edward and Richard, rather than surrender (symbolically, lowering his sail and no longer pushing on). The defiance can be seen either as desperate (he has no other weapons but his own body) or as arrogantly stubborn (he’d rather give up a body part than submit, but since his has the military upper hand at the moment–his supporting troops are on their way–he doesn’t need to do anything but talk about the self-mutilation).
Earlier in the play, however, it is not defiance, but open opposition and offense that is the goal of the self-mutilation.
In Act Two, Scene Six, Richard and his brothers have found Clifford, the man killed their brother and father, and the man on whom Richard has sworn revenge. Unfortunately for the York boys, Clifford is dead. But the bloodthirsty Richard is willing to sacrifice to bring Clifford back to life to face Richard’s justice:
If this right hand would buy but two hours' life
That I, in all despite, might rail at him,
This hand would chop it off, and with the issuing blood
Stifle the villain whose unstanched thirst
York and young Rutland could not satisfy.
What a gloriously bloody image! If his right hand would bring Clifford back to life so Richard you yell at him (“rail”), then Richard would chop it off. But in that chopping off of his hand, Richard realizes he won’t be satisfied with using mere words against Clifford: Richard would then drown Clifford in the blood that would pour from the severed limb. The hand gives life and it takes it away. Richard as a demonic God.
It is interesting to think how far we’ve come in the depiction of violence in these first few plays. In Titus, we see the results of the violence (Lavinia without her hands, and bleeding from her tongue; Titus losing his hand onstage and with only a stump thereafter; Titus slitting the throats of the rapists onstage). Now in The Third Part, we have only the discussion (graphic as it may be) of the mutilations (yes, we see severed head, but not the ongoing suffering). I’m not sure what all this means, or if it means anything at all.
Just found it interesting, is all…