Titus Andronicus is the first tragic play by William Shakespeare. It is by far Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most brutally violent work. The play takes place during the decline of the Roman Empire, and tells the fictional tale of Titus, a Roman army general.
The Roman Emperor has just died, and his two sons, Saturninus and Bassianus, are bickering about who will succeed him. They seem destined to resort to violence in order to settle the matter until a tribune, named Marcus Andronicus, enters. Marcus announces that the people have chosen Marcus’ brother, Titus, as their new emperor. Titus has just returned to Rome after waging a successful ten-year campaign against the Goths. He is greeted by celebrations and fanfare as he enters the city, bringing with him several Gothic prisoners. Among his captives is the Queen of the Goths, Tamora; her three sons, Alarbus, Chiron, and Demetrius; and Aaron the Moor, Tamora’s secret lover. Tamora pleads with Titus, but he ignores her, sacrificing her eldest son Alarbus to avenge the deaths of his own sons, who died at war. Tamora is distraught, and she and her two remaining sons vow to seek revenge on Titus.
Titus refuses the throne, saying that he is not fit to rule. Instead, he supports Saturninus, who is then elected. Saturninus’ first decision as emperor is to marry his brother’s fiancé, Lavinia, who is also Titus’s daughter. Titus agrees, but Bassianus refuses to give her up. His sons tell Titus that Bassianus is clearly right under Roman law, but Titus refuses to listen, and accuses them of treason. A fight ensues, and Titus kills one of his sons, Mutius. Saturninus denounces the Andronici family, and marries Tamora, rather than Lavinia. Tamora, who is putting her plan for revenge into motion, persuades Saturninus to pardon Bassianus and the rest of the family, which he does, albeit reluctantly.
The next day there is a royal hunt, and Aaron persuades Demetrius and Chiron to kill Bassianus, so that they may rape Lavinia. They do, throwing Bassianus’ body into and pit and dragging Lavinia into the forest before violently raping her. To prevent her from revealing what they have done, they cut out her tongue and cut off her hands. Aaron forges a letter which frames Titus’ sons Martius and Quintus for the murder of Bassianus. Saturninus, horrified, arrests the two brothers and sentences them to death.
It is Marcus who discovers Lavinia, and takes her to her father who is overcome with grief. Then Aaron arrives, saying that if Titus, Marcus, or Titus’ remaining son, Lucius, cuts off their hand and sends it to Saturninus, Martius and Quintus will be spared. Titus has Aaron cut off his (Titus’) left hand, and sends it to the emperor, but in return a messenger brings him the heads of his two sons, along with his severed hand. Titus orders Lucius to flee Rome and raise an army to attack Rome.
Lavinia uses a stick held with her mouth and between her mutilated arms to reveal the names of her attackers. Tamora gives birth to a mixed race child, fathered by Aaron. Aaron kills the nurse, and flees with the baby to save it from Saturninus’ inevitable wrath. Lucius, with his army, captures Aaron and threatens to kill the infant. To save his child, Aaron reveals the plot to Lucius.
Titus is showing clear signs of insanity. Believing that Titus has been driven insane, Tamora, Chiron, and Demetrius dress as the spirits of Revenge, Murder, and Rape, and go to him. Tamora, as Revenge, convinces him to postpone the imminent attack on Rome. He agrees, and sends for Lucius. Revenge then tells him to invite the emperor and Tamora to a feast at his home before leaving. Titus tells Rape and Murder to stay with him; he cuts their throats, and drains their blood into a basin held by Lavinia. Titus says he plans to play to cook: to grind the bones into powder and bake their heads.
At the reconciliatory feast, Titus asks Saturninus if a father must kill his daughter when she has been raped. Saturninus replies that he should. Titus kills Lavinia, and tells Saturninus about the rape. Saturninus called for Chiron and Demetrius, but Titus reveals that Tamora has just eaten them, baked into a pie. Titus kills Tamora and is immediately killed by Saturninus, who is killed by Lucius, who is proclaimed emperor. Lucius gives Saturninus a state burial, has Tamora’s body thrown to the wild beasts outside the city, and orders Aaron be buried chest-deep and left to starve. Aaron is unrepentant, only regretting that he had not done more evil in his life.