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Hands loom large in Hercules Furens, with manus occurring 55 times. Hands are symbols of Hercules’ virtus and vis, and pivotal plot elements: early on, Juno says she will turn Hercules’ fortes manus against him (113-22); later, his bloodied hands ‘speak’ his guilt (1192-1200). Comparing Euripides’ play, Fitch notes: “the dramatic use of [hands] to foreshadow the tragedy, and to reveal Hercules’s guilt, is new in Seneca” (1987:152). Indeed, HF’s obsessive deployment of hands can seem too obvious, characteristic of Seneca’s ‘heavy-handed’ visual symbolism. They are also a mark of the Senecan, a trace of his authorial summa manus as he reworks his literary models into second-hand Roman tragedy. Studies have explored how the mutilated, scattered membra of Neronian literature figure a ruptured body politic, yet also generate aesthetic coherence (e.g. Dinter 2012). How, then, should we ‘read’ Hercules’ hands? Rhetorical trope or real body part? Literary clumsiness or dexterous manipulation of body into metaphor? Whose hands are they? Given renewed interest in Senecan aesthetics, dramaturgy, and Greco-Roman body-language (Slaney 2016; Cairns 2005), it is worth re-examining the hand’s inescapable presence as verbal and non-verbal element in HF.

Reading these tragic hands presents an interpretive challenge, mirroring the vexed question of whether these plays were written for physical performance or to be experienced in the ‘mind’s eye’ (Glinski 2017). Hercules’ ‘speaking hands’ emblematize Seneca’s distinctively sensory tragic idiom, which emphasizes language’s physical impact on the world. Hercules furens was a common pantomimic routine, and its recognizable movements may have influenced Seneca’s emphasis on hands as key plot elements and visual symbols (Luc. Salt. 41; Macr. Sat. 2.7.16). Ancient philosophy drew on the hand’s analogical character as exemplar of the relation of body to mind, and parts to whole (Rowe 1999), signifying, metaphorically and materially, an individual’s ability to act with personal and political effect. Manus were thus associated with manliness: exempla of early Roman heroes often focus on hands as symbolic and bodily instruments of virtus (e.g. Scaevola: Livy 2.12-13). Moreover, HF is not Seneca’s only thematization of hands: in Phaedra Theseus tries to restore Hippolytus’ dismembered manus to its original locus, in a ghoulish scene decoded as an allegory of interpretation, “the process of analysis and the search for intelligibility” (Kennedy 2018: 218).

Setting the trope of the hand in these contexts, this paper examines the way it organizes and structures meaning in HF. As Hercules’ virile manus become instruments of Juno’s feminine ira, violently estranged from his consciousness, decoding his hands reveals the play’s subversive engagement with Rome’s manual semiotics, in which the hand exemplified the passage between virtus/agency, intention/action, mind/body, word/deed. Yet the very prominence of hands – particularly the forceful, paradigmatically Herculean gestures of wielding, breaking, and opening (especially the Underworld) – both invites and challenges the grounds of such ‘symbolic’ or symptomatic interpretation, the notion that we can ‘break open’ and ‘uncover’ a latent meaning beneath a material, manifest one.