“Titus Andronicus” is Shakespearean tragedy at its most brutal. The play features forced amputations, rape, cannibalism, an “honor killing,” and a figurative orgy of sword stabbings.
Titus Andronicus, head of the family Andronici and a Roman military commander, has returned to Rome from a campaign in which he handily defeated the Goths. General Andronicus brings with him as prisoners the Goth Queen, Tamora, and her three sons. (The oldest of whom is summarily executed as a tribute.) This leaves two sons, Demetrius and Chiron, as the plays main villains, in cahoots with Tamora and her Moorish lover, Aaron.
Titus arrives in Rome to find the current Emperor, Saturninus, in an irritable state. The reason is that Saturninus knows the people would love to replace him with the victorious General Andronicus. Titus puts Saturninus’s mind at ease by publicly throwing his support to Saturninus. However, Titus does this believing that Saturninus will marry the General’s daughter, Lavinia, making her Queen. And that is the plan, but Saturninus – on a whim — decides to double-cross Titus and the Andronici by taking Tamora for his wife. [Saturninus could be counted among the play’s cast of villains, but he’s more of a doofus. He’s completely oblivious to his Queen shagging Aaron, the Moor, and – worse than that – that she’s biding her time in a plot to strategically takeover of Rome.]
The first scuffle occurs when Saturninus pulls this double-cross. Titus intends to put a beating on the punk Emperor, but his sons intercede. In the process, he stabs and kills one of his four remaining sons. Saturninus’s brother, Bassanius, preserves some of Lavinia’s dignity by marrying her. Everyone but Titus is alright with that as a next best alternative, including near as we can tell, Lavinia (to be truthful, as throughout most of the literature of that time, not a lot of consideration is given to what the woman wants. In this case, more than most. We know almost nothing about Lavinia but that she seems affable, and everyone loves her.)
Demetrius and Chiron are eager to know Lavinia in the biblical sense. This works into the greater plot being orchestrated by Tamora and Aaron. Step one is the murder of Bassanius by Tamora’s sons, and – because Saturninus would no doubt have some curiosity about who killed his brother –they frame two of Titus’s remaining sons for the act. As payment for taking out Bassanius, Tamora tells Demetrius and Chiron that they can rape Lavinia as they please as long as they silence her afterword. The two sons think it would be more fun to lop her hands and tongue off than to murder her, and thus they do that. As the reader might expect, Lavinia is eventually able to communicate the identities of her attackers and the murderer of her husband [briefly,] Bassanius. However, she can’t do it before swift justice leaves two of Titus’s sons headless.
To show how much of a loathsome character Aaron is, the Moor comes to Titus, telling the General that the Emperor will spare his sons if he cuts his own hand off and submits it immediately. Titus does so, giving his hand to Aaron to deliver back to the Emperor, but Aaron only pretends to go to deliver it because he knows the executions have already occurred and no such deal with Saturninus existed. However, Shakespeare does build complexity into his villain. The one bit of humanity we see in Aaron is when the Queen delivers a child who has far too much skin pigmentation to be the child of a Goth Queen and a Greek Emperor, but just the right amount to be the son of a Goth Queen and her Moorish lover. Aaron is the infant’s sole protector. Everyone else favors bashing the baby’s head in and telling the Emperor it was a miscarriage. Needless to say, Aaron’s plot to trade the black child out for white one that can be passed off as son of Saturninus fails in the final act.
The play is resolved by a plot that involves Titus’s oldest son, Lucius, going out to raise an army of Goths to defeat the Emperor’s forces while Titus plays his part by pretending to be even more mad than he actually is. This play of insanity allows Titus to deceive Tamora while she thinks she is deceiving him. Gaming a successful military commander turns out to not be a sound strategy. In true tragic fashion, the outcome doesn’t work out well for anyone, but revenge is served with a side of self-destruction.
This is a visceral read. It’s difficult to read at times. That said, it’s a very taut and gripping (if harrowing) story. It’s the first of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and is definitely worth reading – if you can stomach it.