Agency and Discontinuity: ‘Hands’ in Shakespeare, 1593-5

The word ‘hand’ and its cognates feature ubiquitously in Shakespeare’s plays, averaging over 30. Chart 1 shows this frequency by period, the highest occurring in 1593-5, which includes the three plays with the highest counts (Titus Andronicus 74; King John 65; Richard II 52).

A good example of the prevalence of ‘hand’ in the works of this period is 1.2 of Richard III (1593), where it appears 5 times. Here Anne calls on Henry VI’s ghost to recognise that his son was “stabbed by the selfsame hand that… made these holes” (1.2.14) in her dead son. At first Richard claims her son was “slain by Edward’s hand” (1.2.93), but then admits that his hand killed the boy. However, he insists that he is willing to kill himself for Anne, if he “may but beg one favour of thy gracious hand” (1.2.210), meaning marriage. Thus hands as agents can discontinue life and promise a new one; conjoin pairs but also separate them permanently.

Chart 1: Mean scores for 'HAND' (and cognates) in Shakespeare's plays, by period (normalised)

Chart 1: Mean scores for ‘HAND’ (and cognates) in Shakespeare’s plays, by period (normalised)


This paradoxical aspect of hands is central to their function in Shakespeare. Their agency is also at one remove from the self-directed individual. According to Katherine Rowe, such a concept was not strange to contemporaries, as images of disembodied hands were common in imprese books, such as Paradin’s Devise Heroique, shown here.[1] As she says, early modern texts suggest that “objects and instruments of action” have agency, the hand having primacy.[2]

chart2Another example of a disarticulated hand is found in Sonnet 111, where the persona compares himself to a dyer’s hand, signifying low status:

O, for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.
Pity me then and wish I were renew’d;
Whilst, like a willing patient, I will drink
Potions of eisel ‘gainst my strong infection;
No bitterness that I will bitter think,
Nor double penance, to correct correction.
Pity me then, dear friend, and I assure ye
Even that your pity is enough to cure me.

This sonnet enacts a structural fracture, line 7 ending with ‘the dyer’s hand’, exactly halfway through the sonnet, while line 8, the last line of the second quatrain, is severed from the previous unit and attached to the third quatrain, as if the hand performs this dislocation. The sonnet divides into two irreconcilable parts. Its voice is also split, addressing both the ‘dear friend’, and, with words like ‘penance’ and ‘correction’, God. The non-reply received in both cases reinforces the sense of dissociation and impasse.

The hand features in Shakespeare metatextually too, as a metonym for authorship.[3] As early as 1687 Edward Ravenscroft claimed that Shakespeare only added a few touches to Titus Andronicus,[4] while Morton (1919) showed close resemblances to George Peele’s Battle of Alcazar.[5] Stefan Kellar finds evidence that 1.1, 2.1 and 4.2 lack the typical figures of speech found elsewhere in early Shakespeare. In contrast, a comparison of the lexis in the plays’ five acts to a random sample of words from Shakespeare’s plays, shown in Chart 2, suggests that Acts 2 and 5 may have been written by a different hand, given their relatively low correlation.

Chart 2: Aggregated Proportional Scores for Lexis from Shakespeare's Dramatic Works in Titus Andronicus, by Act (random sample, normalised and standardised)

Chart 2: Aggregated Proportional Scores for Lexis from Shakespeare’s Dramatic Works in Titus Andronicus, by Act (random sample, normalised and standardised)


Thus, one of the reasons we experience a sense of discontinuity and remote agency in Shakespeare’s texts of 1593-5 may ironically be the presence of disembodied, anonymous hands within them.



[1] Glasgow University emblems website,

[2] Katherine A. Rowe, “Dismembering and Forgetting in Titus Andronicus”, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Autumn 1994, pp. 279-303), p. 280-1.

[3] OED ‘hand’ Nn. III.13b “The performer or originator of a work”, cited 1587 [Accessed 24/11/15].

[4] J. C. Maxwell, Ed., Titus Andronicus (London: Routledge, 1993), p. xix.

[5] Stefan D. Kellar, “Shakespeare’s Rhetorical Fingerprint: New Evidence of the authorship of Titus Andronicus”, English Studies 84:2, pp. 105-18.

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