The story begins in Rome, where Saturninus and his brother Bassianus, sons of the late emperor, appear before the senators, both demanding to succeed their father as caesar. Saturninus argues that he is the rightful heir because he is the first-born son. Bassianus, confident that the public favors him over his brother, insists that the senators call an election. But the proceedings are interrupted by the tribune of the people, Marcus Andronicus, who enters the forum holding caesar’s crown. Marcus Andronicus announces that the masses have decided his brother, Titus Andronicus, the valiant general who has just returned home in triumph from a ten-year war with the Goths, should decide who gains the throne. Saturninus and Bassianus accept Rome’s choice, and Bassianus expresses his love for Marcus, Titus, and Titus’s lovely daughter, Lavinia. Saturninus and Bassianus leave the forum and a captain shouts that Titus approaches. Amidst the sounds of trumpets and drums appear Titus’s sons, Martius and Mutius, and behind them two men bearing the coffin of one of Titus’s two sons slain in battle. Lucius and Quintus, Titus’s two other living sons, follow the coffin, and behind them is Titus himself with his captives, Tamora, Queen of the Goths; her three sons, Alarbus, Chiron, and Demetrius; and Aaron, a fierce and evil Moor. Titus gives a short speech in which he laments the loss of many of his sons and countrymen in the drawn-out campaign. Lucius, not content simply to mourn the loss of his brothers, demands a human sacrifice to appease the spirits of the dead. Lucius insists that the victim must be cut to pieces and thrown atop the funeral pyre of his brothers. Titus agrees, and chooses Tamora’s son, Alarbus: “I give him you, the noblest that survives/The eldest son of this distressed queen” (103-4). Tamora pleads with Titus, begging him to understand that her son had to fight for his people. She cries, “thrice-noble Titus, spare my first-born son!” (120). Titus, however, is unmoved and coolly replies:
Patient yourself, madam, and pardon me.
These are their brethren, whom you Goths beheld
Alive and dead, and for their brethren slain
Religiously they ask a sacrifice:
To this your son is mark’d, and die he must,
To appease their groaning shadows that are gone. (121-6)
As Lucius drags Alarbus off to be slaughtered, Tamora and her remaining sons pray for an opportunity to exact revenge. When Lucius returns, he describes the murder in detail:
Alarbus limbs are lopp’d,
And entrails feed the sacrificing fire,
Whose smoke, like incense, doth perfume the sky. (143-5)
The time has come for Titus to choose the new emperor. Marcus Andronicus affirms that the common people want Titus himself to become ruler, and all he need do is ask for the crown. But Titus refuses, telling Marcus that “A better head her glorious body fits/Than his that shakes for age and feebleness” (187-8). Saturninus grows impatient and lashes out at Titus, crying, “would thou wert shipp’d to hell/Rather than rob me of the people’s hearts!” (206-7). Bassianus, more composed than his brother, states his case plainly before Titus:
Andronicus, I do not flatter thee,
But honour thee, and will do till I die:
My faction if thou strengthen with thy friends,
I will most thankful be; and thanks to men
Of noble minds is honourable meed. (214-8)
Saturninus, who relishes the chance to dispose of the popular general, implicates Titus in Lavinia’s kidnapping. The accusations confound and devastate Titus, who cries “These words are razors to my wounded heart” (314). Saturninus announces that Tamora shall be his new wife, and she gladly accepts. Bassianus and Lavinia are brought before the emperor and he accuses Bassianus of raping Rome by kidnapping Lavinia. Bassianus defends his actions and, most surprisingly, defends Titus, whom he calls “a father and friend to Rome” (423). However, before Saturninus can announce the punishment set for Titus and Bassianus, Tamora comes forth to defend Titus. She cordially tells the court that, since she is now a happy Roman, all previous quarrels should be forgotten. Of course, Tamora is merely pretending to reconcile with the murderer of her eldest son. In an aside she tells Saturninus that her plan is to seek revenge at a later time, when his throne is more secure. If he kills Titus now, Tamora argues, then the people will revolt and supplant him for his ingratitude. She assures him that she will find the right time to “massacre them all” and “make them know what ’tis to let a queen/Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain” (454-5). Saturninus agrees, feigns forgiveness for Titus and his family, and suggests that a double wedding take place the next day, with Tamora and Lavinia brides to himself and Bassianus.
Act 2, Scene 1
Tamora’s servant and lover, Aaron the Moor, celebrates his queen’s new title as empress of Rome. Aaron knows that her success is his, for Tamora loves him passionately. Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, enter in a verbal brawl over Lavinia, whom they both lust after. Aaron proposes that the brothers should rape Lavinia during the next day’s hunt. He suggests that they lead Lavinia off onto a secluded path where they can serve their lusts “shadow’d from heaven’s eye/And revel in Lavinia’s treasury” (130-1).
Act 2, Scene 2
The newly married couples meet Titus and his family in a dense forest near Rome. They are anxious to begin the hunt and, in an aside, Demetrius and Chiron reaffirm their heinous plan to ravage Lavinia: “we hunt not, we, with horse nor hound/But hope to pluck a dainty doe to ground” (25-6).
Act 2, Scene 3
In a secluded part of the forest outside Rome, Aaron walks alone, carrying a bag of gold that he has presumably taken from Tamora’s chest. He speaks in riddles of some “excellent piece of villainy” (7) that the gold will help facilitate. He buries the gold under a tree and, just as he finishes, Tamora enters, longing to feel Aaron’s arms around her: “We may, each wreathed in the other’s arms/Our passtimes done, possess a golden slumber” (25-6). Aaron, however, is preoccupied with the “blood and revenge hammering in [his] head” (39) — the upcoming murder of Bassianus and the rape of Lavinia. Such talk of vengeance delights Tamora, who cries “Ah! my sweet Moor, sweeter to me than life!” Aaron hears Bassianus and his bride approach and he asks Tamora to pretend to be cross with Bassianus while he runs to fetch Chiron and Demetrius. Tamora gives a worthy performance, haughtily accusing Bassianus of inconsiderately intruding on her privacy. The ploy delays the young couple just long enough for Chiron and Demetrius to come upon the scene. Demetrius and Chiron stab Bassianus and they drag Lavinia off to finish their gruesome task. Then, with a forged letter as evidence, Aaron frames Titus’s sons, Martius and Quintus, for the murder of Bassianus. Titus pleads for mercy, asking the emperor for legitimate proof before he punish Martius and Quintus, but Saturninus commands that Titus’s sons be executed.
Act 2, Scene 4
Demetrius and Chiron enter with Lavinia, whose tongue and arms have been severed. They taunt her and laugh because she cannot tell Titus who has mutilated her. Having satiated their monstrous urges, the brothers leave Lavinia alone in the woods. Marcus, returning from the hunt, discovers Lavinia in the isolated brush. His riveting outpouring of grief ends the second act:
Who is this? my niece, that flies away so fast!
Cousin, a word; where is your husband?
If I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me!
If I do wake, some planet strike me down,
That I may slumber in eternal sleep!
Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Have lopp’d and hew’d 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 have thy love? Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr’d with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.
But, sure, some Tereus hath deflowered thee,
And, lest thou shouldst detect him, cut thy tongue.
Ah, now thou turn’st away thy face for shame!
And, notwithstanding all this loss of blood,
As from a conduit with three issuing spouts,
Yet do thy cheeks look red as Titan’s face
Blushing to be encountered with a cloud.
Shall I speak for thee? shall I say ’tis so?
… Come, let us go, and make thy father blind;
For such a sight will blind a father’s eye:
One hour’s storm will drown the fragrant meads;
What will whole months of tears thy father’s eyes?
Do not draw back, for we will mourn with thee
O, could our mourning ease thy misery! (11-51)
Act 3, Scene 1
Martius and Quintus walk to the place of execution. Titus runs before them, pleading with the senators and judges to have mercy on him and his sons:
Hear me, grave fathers! noble tribunes, stay!
For pity of mine age, whose youth was spent
In dangerous wars, whilst you securely slept;
For all my blood in Rome’s great quarrel shed;
For all the frosty nights that I have watch’d;
And for these bitter tears, which now you see
Filling the aged wrinkles in my cheeks;
Be pitiful to my condemned sons. (1-8)
The senators ignore Titus and lead Martius and Quintus off to slaughter. Lucius enters with news that he has been banished from Rome because of his attempt to save his brothers from execution. Titus, now despising the Rome he once loved, congratulates Lucius, for he will soon be gone from this “wilderness of tigers” (54). Marcus enters, with Lavinia behind him. He tells Titus to “prepare thy aged eyes to weep” (59) as Lavinia comes out into view. An outpouring of grief ensues, until Aaron enters with word from the emperor. He announces that Saturninus has declared that Titus’s severed hand will be accepted as payment for the crimes of Martius and Quintus, and that, upon delivery of the mutilated hand, they will be set free. Excited by the chance to save his sons, Titus gladly agrees and asks Aaron if he will help to chop it off. Lucius and Marcus both demand that Aaron take one of their hands instead, but Titus insists it be his hand. Aaron hacks through Titus’s wrist and carries the hand away. But only moments after Aaron leaves, a messenger comes to Titus, carrying the heads of Martius and Quintus and Titus’s severed hand. Titus realizes that Aaron has tricked him. His sorrow over his great losses turns into uncontrollable rage, and, determined to seek revenge at all costs, he sends Lucius to the Goths to raise an army against Saturninus and Tamora.
Act 3, Scene 2
The scene opens in a room in Titus’s house, where a banquet is set out for the remaining members of the family. Marcus kills a fly with his knife, prompting an outcry from Titus, wholly unbefitting his character:
But how, if that fly had a father and mother?
How would he hang his slender gilded wings,
And buzz lamenting doings in the air!
Poor harmless fly,
That, with his pretty buzzing melody,
Came here to make us merry! and thou hast
kill’d him. (59-65)
To appease Titus, Marcus tells him that the fly resembled Aaron, and Titus apologizes, saying, “Pardon me for reprehending thee/For thou hast done a charitable deed” (69-70). Marcus observes that grief has made Titus delirious.
Act 4, Scene 1
Lavinia is in the garden, chasing after her young nephew, trying to give him a message. She finally is able to draw attention to the book that young Lucius is reading — the Metamorphosis by Ovid. She directs Marcus and Titus to the section which recounts the rape of Philomel, daughter of Pandion, who was ravaged by the king of Thrace, Tereus. Tereus then cut out Philomel’s tongue to prevent her from exposing the crime. Titus and Marcus are quick to make the connection, and they ask Lavinia to write in the sand the names of her attackers. When she reveals the sons of Tamora are to blame, Titus and Marcus vow “mortal revenge upon these traitorous Goths” (93).
Act 4, Scene 2
Titus sends young Lucius to set a trap for Chiron and Demetrius. He arrives at the imperial palace bearing as gifts the “goodliest weapons” (11) in Titus’s armoury. Upon inspecting the presents after Lucius leaves, Demetrius notices a scroll wrapped around the weapons. On the parchment is a quote from Horace’s twenty-second ode: “The man who is pure in life and free from crime, has no need of the javelins or arrows of the Moor” (20-1). Chiron, failing to see the irony, fondly remembers the verse from his school days. Aaron, however, knows that Titus has discovered their guilt. He decides to keep the knowledge to himself, concerned only that pregnant Tamora get her rest. Suddenly, the sound of the emperor’s trumpets rings through the castle. Chiron deduces it is because Saturninus and Tamora now have a son. A nurse, sent by Tamora, comes rushing into the room, looking for Aaron. She hands the “joyless, dismal, black, and sorrowful” (65) baby to Aaron. Demetrius and Chiron see that the father of the baby is clearly the Moor and not the emperor, and they demand that Aaron kill it at once. The nurse reports that Tamora also wishes Aaron to kill the infant. He refuses, murdering the nurse to ensure her silence. He convinces Demetrius and Chiron to buy the white baby of his countryman, Muliteus, who will surely accept his son becoming heir to the Roman empire. They depart, carrying the body of the dead nurse, and Aaron makes plans to take his baby to the Goths for protection.
Act 4, Scene 3
Titus, now mentally unbalanced by the terrible chain of events, insists that Marcus, young Lucius, and others in his family shoot arrows into the sky, each carrying a message to the gods. A clown enters, holding two pigeons. Titus pays the clown to give his birds to the emperor as a gift. Titus includes a message to Saturninus and places a dagger inside the parchment. The clown heads for the palace.
Act 4, Scene 4
Saturninus, who has found the messages to the gods on the fallen arrows, believes that Titus is pretending to be insane, writing inflamitory messages to make him appear unjust before the people. The clown enters and naively delivers the pigeons and Titus’s letter to the emperor. Saturninus swiftly orders the clown to be hanged and vows to kill Titus with his own hands. Aemilius, a Roman nobleman, speeds into the room, announcing that the Goths, under the direction of Lucius, are approaching the capital. Tamora convinces the emperor that she will be able to persuade Titus to “pluck proud Lucius from the warlike Goths” (109). Aemilus is sent to request a parley of Lucius, with the meeting to be held at Titus’s house.
Act 5, Scene 1
Aaron and his child, who have been captured by a Goth, are brought before Lucius, who promptly sentences them both to hang. Aaron tells Lucius that he will confess all if the child is spared. Lucius agrees, and Aaron reveals that Chiron and Demetrius killed Bassianus and raped and mutilated Lavinia. He brags about his part in the evil doings, and is sorry only that death will stop him from performing “ten thousand more” (144) atrocities. Lucius orders a guard to gag Aaron and Aemilius enters with the request from Rome for a parley at Titus’s house. Lucius accepts the meeting.
Act 5, Scene 2
Tamora and her two sons approach Titus’s house. Her plan is to convince Titus that she is the spirit of Revenge, sent from below to “join with him and right his heinous wrongs” (4). They knock, and when Titus opens the door he knows at once who they are, but he pretends to believe Tamora’s story. She suggests that Titus bring the emperor to a great feast, where Titus can then carry out his revenge. Titus says that he likes the idea, and asks if she will leave Chiron and Demetrius with him. She agrees and bids Titus farewell. Titus then has the brothers gagged and bound. He reveals that his plan is to kill them, cook them, and serve them to Tamora in a meat pie.
Act 5, Scene 3
Lucius arrives at Titus’s house and hands Aaron over to Marcus. Trumpets sound, announcing the arrival of Saturninus and Tamora. They take their places at the banquet table, and Titus, dressed in a cook’s cap and apron, bids them welcome. He tells the guests a story about a father who killed his own daughter because she had been raped. He then seizes and kills Lavinia. Only slightly taken aback, Saturninus asks Titus to tell him who raped Lavinia. Titus waits until the empress has taken a bite of the meat pie before he reveals that he knows Chiron and Demetrius are the attackers. He tells the guests that the two are “both baked in this pie/Whereof their mother daintily hath fed” (60-1), and then he stabs Tamora. Saturninus leaps across the table and kills Titus. Lucius then kills Saturninus. The noblemen attending the banquet declare Lucius the new emperor, and Titus is exonerated. Aaron is brought forth and Lucius decides that he should be buried to the neck in sand and starved. Aaron, defiant to the end, tells Lucius that “If one good deed in all my life I did/I do repent it from my very soul” (188-9).