Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

Dismemberment and mutilation in Titus Andronicus

  Read an extract from Professor Farah Karim-Cooper’s The Hand on the Shakespearean Stage, exploring gesture, touch, skill and dismemberment in Shakespeare’s plays

6 minute read

Content warning: This blog is about extreme violence , including bodily mutilations and sexual assault, and contains material and images that may cause harm or distress.


Titus Andronicus (co-authored with George Peele, who wrote The Battle of Alcazar in 1591–4) is particularly merciless in its violent fragmentation of bodies, particularly the female body. Albert Tricomi observed Shakespeare’s insistent use of metaphor in the play was designed to ‘keep the excruciating images of mutilation before our imaginations even when the visual spectacle is no longer before us’. Structurally, the language is replete with the imagery of dismemberment and fragmentation.

A woman kneels on the floor in desperation, pleading.

‘It is important to ask […] what emotional responses such spectacles of dismemberment can provoke.’ Photographer: Simon Kane

Early on Lucius hints at the disastrous consequences of the denial of Tamora’s supplication to save her sons: ‘Give us the proudest prisoner of the Goths, / That we may hew his limbs’, invoking the ancient ritual of prisoner dismemberment and sacrifice. Later, Lucius says, ‘Let’s hew his limbs’; and finally he reports the deed after it is done: ‘Alarbus’ limbs are lopped’. The insistence upon the ritual of sacrifice is indicative of the violent compulsions within the Andronici as well as the Goths while it alludes to the hacking off of body parts yet to come. Eventually, the word ‘hand’ occurs with increasing intensity, referred to over 60 times, the most in any Shakespeare play. Perhaps not surprisingly, before the dismemberments occur, the word ‘hand’ does not appear with as much frequency as it does after hands have been hewed. Shakespeare makes the audience aware of their own hands through the next cluster of images. Lavinia says to her father, ‘O bless me here with thy victorious hand, / Whose fortunes Rome’s best citizens applaud’; then Marcus declares ‘With voices and applause of every sort, / Patricians and plebeians, we create / Lord Saturninus Rome’s great emperor’. Finally, Satruninus asks Tamora to ‘applaud my choice?’. The reference to applause, a communal gesture of approval, is a deliberate invocation of hands and the will and intention with which they can reinforce the actions of the state and, more theatrically speaking, the performances of the actors.

‘the word ‘hand’ occurs with increasing intensity, referred to over 60 times, the most in any Shakespeare play’

The play’s attention to severed hands manifests in the off-stage mutilation of Titus’s only daughter Lavinia, which involves not only her tongue being cut out, but her hands being lopped off by her rapists as a deliberate strategy to silence the speaking parts of her body. The second amputation takes place on stage. When Titus hopes to strike a bargain with the emperor Saturninus, he offers his hand in exchange for his sons’ lives. Aaron the Moor, as intermediary in this negotiation, gleefully cuts off Titus’s hand but returns with the heads of Titus’s sons. It is important to ask at this stage how these two events are framed by the language of the hand and what emotional responses such spectacles of dismemberment can provoke.

An actor points with a sword

‘Aaron the Moor gleefully cuts off Titus’s hand and returns with the heads of Titus’s hands’ Photographer: Simon Kane

Unlike the cluster of what I call ‘amputation plays’ of the mid-1590s, Titus Andronicus has at the centre of its spectacle a traumatized female body, who, distinct from Aga in Selimus, is unable to comment upon her own mutilation verbally. Much critical ink has been spilled on Lavinia’s rape and mutilation over the decades; yet critics have been unable to exorcise the horror of the play even when considering its Senecan roots and possible contemporary political resonances. Some critical readings of Lavinia’s dismemberment have suggested that she is a site where political or familial divisions are literally materialized. For example, Molly Easo Smith argues that Lavinia’s body ‘represents the plight of Rome’, while Douglas E. Green calls Lavinia an ‘utter victim’ and sees her ‘mutilated body’ articulating ‘Titus’s own suffering and victimization’.

‘Lavinia is commonly read as embodying the grief and ‘suffering’ of these patriarchal figures’

But Lavinia’s condition is read too often through the political framework of the play where she is seen merely as a trope, a sign of the violently fragmented body of Rome, or as ‘an icon’ and ‘space where the political distribution of signs of agency is worked out’. While her uncle and father comment upon her condition, Lavinia is commonly read as embodying the grief and ‘suffering’ of these patriarchal figures. Lavinia is not just a symbol, though she produces symbolic meaning; she is a woman, a woman without hands. Handlessness, a condition that Iago metaphorically placed Othello in through his language comparing him to beasts, is literalized in this play through Lavinia. By placing on stage a virtuous woman without the ability to gesture or touch, what does Shakespeare want us to make of hands and their meaning in the context of their absence?

A women crying over a man's shoulder and two other men on the floor looking up to the man in the arms of the distressed women

Titus Andronicus, performed in Cantonese, in 2012, as part of Globe to Globe Festival. Photographer: Simon Kane

In this study I have considered what hands signified for women in the social world of early modern England. As we saw, the classical and neo-Platonic ideals of beauty insisted upon the composite wholeness of the body, its symmetry and proportion, with the hand as a particular object of desire. Such formulations of beauty render a deformed, mutilated or disabled body as monstrous or ugly. In the early scenes of the play, Lavinia is, as Bassianus puts it, ‘Rome’s rich ornament’. She is the most desirable woman in the city, who Saturninus planned to make ‘Rome’s royal mistress, mistress of my heart’, and who Bassianus claimed belonged to him. Represented through the language of mistress worship, Lavinia is a rich prize, the feminine ideal of the Renaissance: beautiful and virtuous. When she is violently transformed into a damaged body in fragments having been brutally raped, Shakespeare provides an eerie embodiment of the subjects of mistress worship poetry; these are poems, the reader will recall, that itemized the female body into parts in order to praise each one individually, including the ‘white hands’ of the lady.

Lavinia’s Goth attackers, Demetrius and Chiron, perversely joke about the fact that she no longer has any aesthetic value; her beauty is gone and they challenge her to beautify herself: ‘Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands’. Sweet waters were cosmetic distillations that could be used on the face and the hands; the term also refers to perfumes. Hand washing is cruelly impossible for Lavinia, this moment hinting at the copious amounts of blood that would have been oozing from her mouth and stumps. The notion of sweet waters washing hands re-emerges most memorably when Lady Macbeth imagines washing metaphorical blood from her hands repeatedly with sweet waters, the blood representing her guilt, fear and shame: ‘all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand’. What the Goth brothers’ cruel taunts indicate is that Lavinia is unable to even try to wash away the fear, guilt and shame that attend her violation; she cannot wash it away through suicide, the noble Roman’s privilege, as we saw with Lucrece, who takes back control of her hands by ending her own life.

An actor grabs another actor by the jaw, standing over them.

‘Represented through the language of mistress worship, Lavinia is a rich prize, the feminine ideal of the Renaissance: beautiful and virtuous.’ Photographer: Simon Kane

The absence of physical hands in this play compels their increasing presence in the language. By having characters lop them off, Shakespeare draws even more attention to hands as urgent signifiers of identity and character. When Marcus Andronicus sees Lavinia after her attack, he laments the loss of her hands and recalls the social value attributed to female hands:

Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Hath lopped and hewed and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in
And might not gain so great a happiness
As half thy love …

Fair Philomela, why she but lost her tongue,
And in a tedious sampler sewed her mind;
But, lovely niece, that mean is cut from thee.
A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met,
And he hath cut those pretty fingers off,
That could have better sewed than Philomel.
O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble like aspen leaves upon a lute
And make the silken strings delight to kiss them,
He would not have touched them for his life.

Marcus refers to the myth from Shakespeare’s source, Ovid’s Metamorphoses where Tereus rapes Philomel and cuts out her tongue; she is able to communicate the crime through needlework, however. Shakespeare deviates from his source, as Marcus tells us, with the added torture of the double amputation, reinforcing the notion that hands are as effective at communicating as the tongue. He reminds the audience of the acceptable use female hands had in society: as decorative emblems of femininity and skilful exponents of needlework and music. Marcus’s despair forces him to poeticize Lavinia’s ravaged state, emphasizing the activities of her beautiful ‘lily hands’ that kissed the ‘silken strings’ of a lute. He compares her hands to aspen leaves trembling to remind the audience of their beauty.


This is an exclusive extract from The Hand on the Shakespearean Stage, by Professor Farah Karim-Cooper, available to buy now from Shakespeare’s Globe Shop.