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Royal Shakespeare Company, 1972

Titus Andronicus

Summary of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus: Tamora plans false incrimination, rape, murder, and mutilation. Titus plans murder and cannibalism. This is not a happy play.

Act I

The brothers Saturninus and Bassianus both stand for election to succeed their father as emperor of Rome. The people’s tribune, Marcus Andronicus, announces that his brother, the general Titus, is the favourite contender among the people. Soon afterwards, Titus returns from war with five prisoners: Tamora, queen of the Goths, her three sons, and Aaron the Moor. Titus sacrifices Tamora’s eldest son despite his mother’s pleas, as part of a burial ritual for his own sons. Titus is then offered the throne, but rejects the chance to be emperor saying he is too old. However, he offers his support to Saturninus. He presents Tamora and her two remaining sons to Saturninus, who is now Emperor. Saturninus claims Lavinia (Titus' daughter) as his wife, which Bassianus opposes as he is already in love with her. Lavinia’s brother Mutius attempts to help her, but Titus, angered by this, kills Mutius. Despite this, Saturninus decides that he would prefer Tamora as his empress and liberates her and her remaining sons, along with Aaron the Moor. After a bitter argument, Titus agrees that Mutius may be interred in the Andronici tomb. 

Titus Andronicus 1987
Titus Andronicus, RSC, 1987

Act II

While Aaron speaks of his own secret love for Tamora, her sons enter, fighting over who will wed Lavinia. Aaron calms them and suggests that instead of marriage, they both rape her during the royal hunt. In the woods, Aaron is burying a store of gold, when Tamora finds him and learns of plots he has made to kill Bassianus and frame Titus' sons for the murder. During the royal hunt, Tamora’s sons kill Bassianus and throw the body into a pit near the hidden gold. They capture Lavinia for themselves. Aaron entices Titus’ sons to the same pit, where they both fall in and are found by Saturninus, who concludes that they have murdered Bassianus for the gold.

Marcus Andronicus finds his niece, Lavinia, wandering after she has been raped and mutilated by Tamora’s sons. They have cut off her hands and her tongue so that she cannot testify against them. 

Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, Blood and revenge are hammering in my head

— Titus Andronicus, Act 2 Scene 3

Act III

In Rome, Titus begs for the lives of his sons, but is ignored while his one remaining son, Lucius, is banished for supporting his brothers’ pleas of innocence. Lucius’s son and Titus are reunited with the mutilated Lavinia and her uncle. Aaron offers a reprieve for the accused sons if one of the family will send his severed hand to the emperor as a ransom. Titus cuts off his own hand, but in exchange he receives not their freedom, but his sons’ heads instead. He also receives his scornfully rejected hand. 

Act IV

Titus hovers on the edge of madness as he considers the injustices done to his family, until he discovers who is responsible for severing Lavinia’s tongue and hands. She uses her stump hands to turn the pages of a book to the story of ravished Philomel, and, grasping a stick, she spells out in the sand the names of Tamora's sons.

Aaron realises that Titus has discovered the truth; but before he can do anything about it, Tamora’s newborn baby is brought to him. The queen wishes it to be killed because its dark skin betrays that Saturninus is not the father (and that Aaron is). Aaron kills the nursemaid to prevent her spreading the story, and flees with his son. 

Titus is now seemingly deranged, and he organises his few followers to send arrows into Saturninus’ palace with messages challenging the gods. He also sends two pigeons and a knife to the emperor, who kills the messenger and vows that Titus will die for his threats.

Titus Andronicus
Titus Andronicus, Woodforde, 1793

Act V

During all of these events, the banished Lucius has joined the army of the Goths, and leads them against Rome. Aaron and the infant are brought to him as prisoners. Lucius promises to save the baby, and Aaron tells the truth about Bassianus’ death. Meanwhile, Tamora visits the ‘mad’ Titus, hoping that he will be able to turn the tide of the battle with Lucius and the Goths. She leaves her sons with him, where they are confronted by the ravaged Lavinia. Titus, saying they will become meat to feed their mother, kills them both with Lavinia’s assistance. 

But, soft! methinks I do digress too much,

— Titus Andronicus, Act 5 Scene 3

Titus arranges a banquet at which Saturninus and Tamora are chief guests, seated beside the veiled Lavinia. Titus consults with Saturninus about the story of Virginius, who killed his daughter to preserve her from shame. As the emperor agrees Virginius was right, Titus stabs and kills Lavinia and tells of Tamora's sons’ crimes against her. Saturninus demands the princes are brought to him, and Titus explains they are at the feast already, as they are the meat in the pies that Tamora and the others are eating. Titus stabs Tamora, and is killed in turn by Saturninus, who is then killed by Lucius. 

In the resulting confusion, Marcus Andronicus calms everyone by calling the banished Lucius, Titus’ sole remaining son, to explain the dreadful tale. He tells that the chief villain was Aaron, who remains in prison. The play ends as Lucius is proclaimed Emperor, the unrepentant Aaron is condemned to be buried alive, the Romans give royal burial to Titus and Lavinia, and Tamora’s body is thrown out as food for birds.

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