The Symbolism Of Hands In Titus Andronicus

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The Symbolism of Hands in Titus Andronicus Gratuitous mutilation, gang rape, and ritual butchery are all on full display in Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most violent theatrical works. Of the 24 characters named, 14 are either dead or under sentence of the same by the play’s end. Due in part to its premise and disturbing imagery, critical reception of Titus has understandably flipped-flopped throughout various periods of analysis. What ushered in two decades of popular success and delighted audiences of the 1590’s evoked harsh criticism from late-seventeenth and twentieth-century critics. Poet T.S. Eliot infamously referred to Titus as “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written,” while playwright Edward Ravenscroft dismissed it simply as a “heap of rubbish” (Shakespeare, 399). Yet for all of Titus’s grotesque horrors, the violence that seemingly repulsed Eliot and company should not be viewed as erratic, uncalculated acts. Rather they should be understood as representations of a wider, symbolic significance. It is through dismemberment, and the dismemberment of hands in particular, that the play can be seen through an emblematic perspective to signify the justification of vengeance and the loss of political and personal agency. This essay looks to explore the symbolic meaning of dismembered hands in Titus Andronicus through an anthropological context, incorporating the classical writings of Greek physician Galen along with multiple pieces of widely circulated Renaissance art, emblems, and ritual gestures. The focus will then turn to three distinct scenes of dismemberment within the play: the symbolic nature in the loss of Livinia and Titus’s hands, and how the return of Titus’s hand to the stage can be understood. Dismemberment functions to reveal the adverse trait of overconfidence in Titus, a characteristic that fuels an
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