Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.
Overall Impression: This is a thoroughly unpleasant play with little redeeming poetic language.
Per Bevington: Ben Johnson termed this "a play loved by ignorant audiences". It is early Shakespeare, his first tragedy, a revenge tragedy, and not up to the standards of the great tragedies that followed significantly later. Contains many bookish classical references and allusions (e.g., Horace, Vergil's Aeneid). Possible sources include: Ovid's Metamorphoses (Philomel[a]'s rape by Tereus); Seneca's Thyestes; probably a now-lost work on which the still extant 18C anonymous chapbook The History of Titus Andronicus was derived; Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, etc. It focuses on horror and violence, gruesome suffering, savage mutilations, multiple slaughters, vengeance, evil and diabolism (as depicted by Aaron the Moor), etc.
Rome, before the Capitol, in the late stages of the Roman empire before its fall to the invading Goths etc. Saturninus hopes to claim the title of emperor as first born son of the late emperor his father. His nobler brother Bassianus also wants the title and proposes an election. Marcus Andronicus, Titus' brother and a tribune, announces that the people want Titus, in recognition of Titus' many years of heroic selfless service for the cause of Rome. They agree to an election.
Titus returns in a chariot from war with his soldiers and a coffin containing his deceased son. He is accompanied by his sons Lucius, Quintus, Martius, and Mutius, along with the captured Queen of the Goths, Tamora, her three sons Alarbus, Chiron, and Demetrius, plus Aaron the Moor. Titus places the body of his dead son in the family tomb. His son Lucius proposes that in retribution the eldest son of the captured Queen be sacrificed. Tamora kneels before all and begs for his life, but Titus coldly states that the sacrifice is required by their religion and Alarbus is led off to execution. Chiron comments "Was never Scythia half so barbarous." Demetrius pledges revenge for his brother, like Hecuba Queen of Troy exacted on Polymnestor for the death of her son Polydorus. Lucius returns with bloodied sword and states Alarbus' limbs are lopped and his entrails have been sacrificed.
Titus' daughter, the virtuous Lavinia, enters and praises her father. Marcus asks Titus to be candidatus for emperor. Titus recalls he has served as a soldier for 40 years, has lost 21 of his sons in battle, etc. He wants only a staff for his old age, not the scepter of the emperor, and asks that Saturninus be made emperor—the people consent and Saturninus is crowned. S. announces that he will make Lavinia his bride. Titus feels honored and consents. Tamora however is herself quite appealing and Saturninus after further regarding her tells her he will make her greater than Queen of the Goths.
Lavinia is displeased because she was already betrothed to Bassianus. Bassianus seizes her arm, defended by Lucius, to claim his prior right of possession. Titus calls his 4 sons traitors for opposing his wishes, and stabs Mutius when the boy blocks his way as he tries to grab her while the other 3 and Bassianus lead her away.
Saturninus appears with Tamora, and ungratefully informs Titus that he no longer need Lavinia, nor any of his stock [kin], since they have acted traitorously and dishonorably toward him, and mocks Titus. He has chosen Tamora as his bride, and they swear their love. Titus is left dishonored and having needlessly slain his son. He initially refuses to allow Mutius to be buried in the Andronici family tomb, but Marcus pleads with him to be reasonable, to which he finally acquiesces.
Saturninus accuses Bassianus of treason and rape—the latter protests the ill treatment of Titus, but Titus spurns Bassianus' defense. Tamora sagely asks her new husband to pardon the men, to prevent turning the populace against them. Aside to Saturninus, she plans to massacre all the Andronici to revenge the sacrificing of her son. Tamora asks that they all ask the pardon of the emperor, and Bassanius and Lavinia will also wed that day along with the emperor and empress.
Same. Aaron the Moor contemplates rising to heights as the lover of Tamora and plots the downfall of Saturninus. Chiron and Demetrius are quarreling over their attraction to the chaste and married Lavinia, and Aaron suggests a plan whereby both may satisfy their lust for her.
The grounds of the Emperor's palace. Titus with his three sons and Marcus are planning the hunt for the royal party. Saturninus arrives with Tamora, Bassianus, Lavinia, and Tamora's sons.
Forest near Rome. Aaron plants a bag of gold, taken from the Empress' chest, under a tree near a pit. Tamora arrives and lusts for him. Aaron is not in the mood for love then, expressing his evil thoughts and his plan for trapping Lavinia and Bassanius. He gives her a letter for the emperor, then leaves.
Bassanius arrives with Lavinia and accuses Tamora of having a secret tryst with Aaron. They exchange insults, to which Lavinia adds her own insinuations about Tamora's infidelity. They leave Tamora to her lover, planning to inform the king (emperor).
Demetrius and Chiron arrive. Tamora (wrongfully) accuses Bassanius of foul intent and demands they avenge her. Her sons stab and kill Bassanius and throw him in the pit, as Aaron had instructed them to do. The sons then rape Lavinia, despite her pleas, and with Tamora's approval. Lavinia says would rather die than be raped.
Aaron arrives with Titus' sons Quintus and Martius, who both manage to fall in the pit after spying Bassanius' body there. Aaron goes to fetch the emperor.
Saturninus arrives with Aaron. Martius calls up from the pit saying Bassanius is dead. Tamora enters with Titus and Lucius, and gives the letter to Saturninus (which Aaron has give secretly to her). It appears to reveal a plan to murder Bassanius, and Aaron finds the gold (which he planted) intended ostensibly to reward the murderer. Saturninus blames Titus' sons in the pit for the murder plan, and plans to have them tortured. Titus begs this not be done. Tamora (falsely) reassures Titus she will speak in his son's defense.
Same. Demetrius and Chiron return with Lavinia, ravished, her tongue cut out and hands cut off—they leave her by herself. Marcus discovers her, noting that her attackers were craftier than Tereus, who cut out the tongue of Philomel but spared her hands (by which she weaved a tale of her attackers).
Rome, a street. Titus pleads to the judges passing by to spare his sons, then weeps. Lucius counsels him that the tribunes do not hear him, that they are unmoved. Lucius has drawn his sword, wanting to rescue his two brothers, but has been banished as a result. Titus notes "Rome is but a wilderness of tigers." Marcus enters with the now mute and mutilated Lavinia, and Titus' grief is beyond expression. She weeps, unable to express the innocence of her brothers.
Aaron enters, and persuades Titus to let him cut off his hand in order to spare his sons. He does so, but a messenger returns the hand along with the heads of his sons and a scorning message from the emperor. Marcus sums up the profound insult the Andronici have borne. He, Titus, and Lavinia pledge to seek revenge. They bear away the hand and the heads. Titus tells Lucius to go to seek refuge as an exile with the Goths and raise an army with them.
Titus' house. Titus laments Lavinia's plight and thinks about her killing herself, but Marcus stops this line of thought. They resolve to learn her thoughts. Marcus kills a fly and Titus crazily reacts, though Marcus pleads it was in fact a black ill-favored fly (like the Moor). With this, Titus joins in the savage attack on the black fly. Marcus laments his brother's mental state, in which he mistakes false shadows for true substances.
Titus' garden. Lucius' son young Lucius runs from Lavinia, who has frightened him. She enters and wants to see books. With her stumps, she opens Ovid's Metamorphoses to the tale of Philomel. The men surmise that she was raped. Marcus shows her how to write with a staff in the sand, one end in her mouth and the other held between her stumps. She writes Demetrius and Chiron's names. The 4 kneel and (like Junius Brutus swore vengeance for Lucrece's rape by Sextus Tarquinius) they swear to take revenge on Tamora's sons, though of necessity using stealth at first. Titus will send presents to the empress via the boy.
The Emperor's palace. The boy presents to Chiron and Demetrius weapons from Titus' armory and the message "Integer vitae..." (from a Horace Ode: "He who is spotless in life and free of crime needs not the Moorish javelin or bow"). Aaron wonders if Titus has discovered their guilt.
Trumpets sounds and a nurse brings in a blackamoor newborn that the empress has given birth to. The nurse is distressed at the implications, calling the child dismal, black, sorrowful, loathsome as a toad. The empress wishes it to be slain by Aaron, but he refuses and draws his sword against D. and C., saying he will defend the child above all other considerations. He asks the nurse how many people know of the child's complexion. After she answers, he kills her, then arranges to exchange the infant for one with a lighter skin that has just been born to his countryman Muliteus. Finally he calls for the midwife so that he may also kill her. He plans to leave for the camp of the Goths with the infant, hoping to persuade the Goths to come to the aid of the empress.
Rome, a public place. Titus meets with Marcus, Marcus' son Publius, young Lucius, etc. He is acting crazy and has gathered up arrows with labels on them; Marcus instructs them all to shoot the arrows toward the royal court, which they all do, humoring him. A clown enters with two pigeons, which Titus wants delivered to the empress along with a supplication which he wraps around a knife.
In or before the palace. The emperor is outraged about the labeled arrows shot in his direction by Titus. Tamora calms him, while secretly gloating in the further downfall of Titus. The clown arrives with the doves, message, and enclosed knife. Saturninus demands the clown be executed.
He also wants Titus brought to him, but is interrupted by the news that the Goths have gathered for an attack, led by Lucius. Tamora assures him of his strength. She also pledges to enchant old Titus with sweet words, hoping thereby to get to Lucius. She requests, through the messenger Aemilius, that they have a parley with Lucius, perhaps at Titus' house.
Near Rome. Lucius, now leading an army of Goths, has received letters informing him how much the people hate the emperor. A Goth pledges to follow him and to have vengeance on Tamora [presumably because she seems to have betrayed her own people, and see 5.2]. Another Goth enters leading the captured Aaron, who is holding his child. The Goth condemns Aaron and the child, whom he has overheard Aaron claiming to be the empress'. Lucius orders the child to be hanged. Aaron offers to make a deal, and Lucius agrees to spare the child. Aaron confesses the child is his and the empress', also that her sons murdered Bassanius and ravished his sister, that he tutored the sons in this vile deed and set the trap with Bassanius' body and the gold, etc. He expresses no regret for his actions but in fact would do it all again, recounting many other evil deeds. Lucius finally has him gagged. Aemilius arrives with a message asking for the parley at Titus' home.
The court of Titus' house. Tamora arrives along with her sons, all in disguise. She will play the role of Revenge to the ostensibly deranged Titus. He answers still as if crazy, writings lines in blood. He suspects out loud who she is but she insists she is Revenge, and her sons are her ministers Rape and Murder—he seems to be convinced. She plans to distract him and Lucius at the banquet while the Goths are scattered or at least made Lucius' enemies.
Titus instructs Murder and Rape to go to the court and attack the Queen and the Moor. But she deflects this, asking Titus to invite his son Lucius to the banquet accompanied by some of the Goth chieftains. Marcus arrives and agrees to send these messages. Titus wants her sons to stay when the Queen leaves (knowing they suppose him to be mad and therefore harmless)—she consents and leaves.
Titus has Publius (along with Caius and Valentine, who are also kinsmen) tie the sons up. Titus fetches a basin and Lavinia a knife. He tells them he plans to kill them, grind their bones to dust, and make a paste with their blood for meat pies made from their heads. He then slays them.
Court in Titus' house. Lucius arrives with Marcus and the Goths plus Aaron and his child. Lucius wants Aaron starved. Saturninus and Tamora arrive. Titus enters dressed as a cook, along with Lavinia and young Lucius. Titus inquires of them about the precedent whereby the Roman Virginius slayed his raped daughter to preserve the family honor—the emperor and empress agree it was the proper thing to do. Titus then kills Lavinia in front of them (claiming he is more woeful than Virginius). He announces the guilt of Chiron and Demetrius, and, after the queen has eaten some of the pie, says they were both baked in it. He kills Tamora, Saturninus kills him, then Lucius kills Saturninus.
Marcus, aloft, speaks to the citizens about how to knit their scattered community together again. He asks Lucius to tell the people about the evil deeds leading up to today's events. Lucius tells of Chiron and Demetrius' acts, Aaron's deception depriving Titus of his hand, his own banishment, etc. Marcus points out the Moor's child, and asks the crowd to render judgement as to whether they have acted justly, offering for Lucius and himself to leap to their deaths if the people condemn their actions. But Aemilius and the crowd approve and declare Lucius to be the new emperor. Marcus wants the Moor to be punished for his wicked life. Lucius and Marcus kiss the body of Titus, and Lucius' son mourns Titus' death. Lucius orders Aaron to be buried breast-deep in earth to starve to death. Aaron defiantly repents any good deed he has ever done. Lucius orders the other bodies to receive noble burials, but Tamora is to be fed to the beasts and birds of prey.