Early in the Christian era, Saturninus and Bassianus, sons of the late emperor, contend for the crown of the Roman Empire. Both men are leaders of strong factions. Another candidate, a popular one, is Titus Andronicus, a Roman famed for his victories over the barbarian Goths to the north. Marcus Andronicus, brother of Titus, states in the forum that Titus is the popular choice to succeed the late emperor. The sons, willing to abide by the desires of the populace, dismiss their factions.
As the prominent men of the city go into the senate house, Titus makes his triumphant entry into Rome. He is accompanied by his surviving sons and by a casket containing the bodies of other sons. In his train also are Tamora, the queen of the Goths; her sons, Alarbus, Demetrius, and Chiron, and her lover, Aaron, a Moor. Before the senate house, Lucius, one of Titus’s sons, demands that a Gothic prisoner be sacrificed to appease the spirits of his dead brothers in the casket. When Titus offers as sacrifice the oldest son of Tamora, the queen pleads for mercy, reminding Titus that her sons are as precious to her as his are to him. Titus pays her no heed. Alarbus is sacrificed, and the casket is then laid in the tomb of the Andronici. At that moment Lavinia, Titus’s only daughter, appears to greet her father and brothers and to pay her respects to her fallen brothers.
Marcus comes out of the senate house, greets Titus, and informs him that he is the choice of the people for the emperorship. Titus, unwilling to take on that responsibility at his age, persuades the people to name Saturninus emperor instead. Saturninus, in gratitude, asks for and receives the hand of Lavinia to become his queen. Bassianus, however, to whom Lavinia gives her heart, seizes the maid with the help of Marcus and the sons of Titus and carries her away. Titus’s son, Mutius, who stays behind to cover their flight, is killed by his father.
Saturninus, who begrudges Titus his popularity with the people, disavows all allegiance and debt to the general and plans to take Tamora as his wife. Titus, deserted by his emperor, his brother, and his sons, is deeply shaken.
Marcus and Titus’s sons return and express the desire to bury Mutius in the family vault. Titus at first refuses, saying that Mutius was a traitor; then he relents after his brother and his sons argue effectively for proper burial. When Bassianus appears with Lavinia, Saturninus vows that he will avenge the stealing of the maid who was given him by her father. Bassianus speaks in Titus’s behalf, but Titus declares that he can plead his own case before the emperor. Tamora openly advises Saturninus to be gracious to Titus, but secretly she advises him to gain Titus’s friendship only because Titus is so popular in Rome. She assures Saturninus that she will destroy Titus and his family for their having sacrificed one of her own sons. Saturninus therefore pardons the Andronici and declares his intention of marrying Tamora. Believing their differences reconciled, Titus invites Saturninus to hunt with him the next day.
Aaron, contemplating Tamora’s good fortune and the imminent downfall of Saturninus and of Rome as well, comes upon Chiron and Demetrius, disputing and about to draw their swords over their chances of winning the favors of Lavinia. Advising the youths to contain themselves, he tells them that both can enjoy Lavinia by seizing her in the forest during the hunt, which will be attended by the lords and ladies of the court.
Later, while the hunt is under way, Aaron hides a sack of gold at the foot of a large tree in the forest. He previously arranged to have a pit dug near the tree; this pit he covered over with undergrowth. There Tamora finds him and learns that both Bassianus and Lavinia will come to grief that day. Before Aaron leaves Tamora, he gives her a letter with directions that the message should reach the hands of Saturninus. Bassianus and Lavinia approach and, seeing that the Moor and Tamora are together, chafe Tamora and threaten to tell Saturninus of her dalliance in the forest. Chiron and Demetrius come upon the scene. Informed by Tamora that Bassianus and Lavinia insulted her, they stab Bassianus to death. When Tamora urges them to stab Lavinia they refuse, saying that they will enjoy her first. Lavinia then appeals to Tamora to remember that Titus spared her life. Tamora, recalling how Titus ignored her pleas to spare her son from sacrifice, is determined that her sons should have their lustful pleasure. The brothers, after throwing the body of Bassianus into the pit, drag Lavinia away to rape her.
Meanwhile, Aaron, on the pretext that he trapped a panther, brings two of Titus’s sons, Quintus and Martius, to the pit and leave them there. Martius falls into the trap, where he recognizes the murdered Bassianus by a ring he wears on his finger. When Quintus...
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