Titus Andronicus opens in the twilight of the Roman Empire, in the aftermath of the Emperor's death. His two sons - Saturninus, his firstborn, and Bassianus, his second - are pleading to the Roman elite for their respective causes. Saturninus argues that because he is the emperor's eldest son the right to succession is naturally his, while Bassianus counters that Saturninus is unfit for the position and that he, the more honorable son, should succeed their father. This debate is interrupted when Marcus Andronicus, the tribune of Rome, announces that the people of Rome have elected his brother, Titus, to be the next emperor, on the basis of his recent successes in the wars against the Goths. Saturninus and Bassianus dismiss their factions and Titus enters victorious from battle, though greatly grief-stricken because he has lost twenty-one of his twenty-five sons.
Titus' eldest remaining son, Lucius, orders that the eldest prince of the Goths, Alarbus, who has been taken in battle, be sacrificed to appease the Roman gods. The queen of the Goths, Tamora, falls to her knees to beg Titus not to kill her son; Titus, however, orders the sacrifice to commence and Tamora and her two remaining sons, Chiron and Demetrius, both swear that Romans are far more barbaric than Goths. Following Alarbus' death, Titus' beloved daughter, Lavinia, enters to receive her father's blessing. Close behind is Marcus, who announces that Titus is the new emperor. Titus rejects the honor, saying that he is too old and feeble to take on the role of emperor. Meanwhile, Saturninus rouses up his faction to seize the empery for himself; this action is rendered inconsequential, however, when Titus, with the blessing of the Tribune and above the protestations of Bassianus, bestows the empery upon Saturninus.
Immediately upon becoming emperor, Saturninus declares Lavinia to be his wife, though she was promised to his brother Bassianus. Titus readily agrees to the match. Saturninus then turns his attention to the Goth prisoners, and finds himself instantly smitten by Tamora. He promises the Goth queen that she shall be made greater in Rome than she ever was as a Goth. As he is leaving with his entourage, Bassianus seizes Lavinia, declaring that she is rightfully his; Titus' sons, knowing that Bassianus and Lavinia were betrothed, defend Bassianus' right to seize her, an action that Titus interprets as treason.
Titus pursues them and in his rage slays Mutius, one of his sons. Saturninus, for his part, declares Lavinia's fleeing to be Titus' fault and rebukes the general, while in his next breath he takes Tamora for his queen; they depart to consummate their marriage. Marcus and Lucius enter bearing Mutius and insisting that he receive proper funeral rites. Titus initially refuses, declaring Mutius and the rest of his family to be base traitors. However, rejected by the emperor and estranged from his family, Titus eventually agrees to entomb Mutius after his family kneels and begs him.
Saturninus and Tamora return from their consummation, and Saturninus immediately rails against Bassianus and Titus. He threatens revenge until Tamora, the newly-crowned queen, interjects and entreats him to forgive them. She whispers to Saturninus that she will "find a day to massacre them all," promising revenge on Titus because he sacrificed Alarbus despite her pleas for his life. Saturninus agrees to forgive Titus and the rest of his family. Having regained the emperor's favor (or so he thinks), Titus invites Saturninus to join him in a hunt the following day.
Titus is simultaneously very familiar and very strange to someone who has read Shakespeare's more famous works: almost like Shakespeare as seen in a funhouse mirror. Many of the themes that he explores later in his career are present here: revenge, primogeniture, marriage. And one can detect shades of Lady Macbeth in Tamora, hints of King Lear in Titus, and other character similarities even after only one Act. But all of these recognizably Shakespearean features unfold against an unfamiliarly grotesque backdrop. Even from the very beginning of the play, the characters and actions in Titus seem more horrific than is typical of Shakespeare.
The most obvious example of this in the first Act is the presence of extreme violence. Certainly later works contained instances of murder and mayhem: all of his major tragedies end with death. But the violence in Titus is unique. For one thing, horrific, ritualistic acts of violence occur right from the play's beginning. The deaths in Shakespeare's later plays almost always occur in later Acts, after they have been keenly anticipated and their consequences considered. The violence in the third Act - and indeed throughout the play - is quite different: random, brutal, and ineloquent. People are killed on a whim, limbs lopped off almost merrily. This is not violence in the pursuit of power, as in Macbeth, or as a form of revenge, as in Hamlet. It is simple chaos.
And who is the perpetrator of these initial acts of violence? The namesake of our play, Titus Andronicus. Titus' first major action is to sacrifice Alarbus despite the eloquent pleading of Tamora. His second is to give his daughter - whom he presumably knows is promised to Bassianus - to the unlikable Saturninus. His third is to kill one of his four remaining sons. This is our hero? It is almost impossible to sympathize with his zealous, almost nonsensical devotion to Rome - a corrupt, factious state that he helps to make all the more corrupt by giving Saturninus power. And what is more, Shakespeare makes no effort to win Titus sympathy. He displays Titus' coldhearted murderousness in the sacrifice of Alarbus and the murder of Mutius. Even the Goths - no strangers to barbarous acts, as we shall see - declare that they are not "half so barbarous" as Rome, and lament Titus' "cruel irreligious piety." Titus, in any other Shakespearean play, would be a sanctimonious villain; here, however, he is our tragic hero.
Titus' behavior - his chaotic actions in the name of Roman order, his barbarity in the name of civilization - gets at the chief thematic mode of Titus: contradiction. Titus' unthinking devotion to traditional Roman customs is actually bad for the state. His idea of honor - forcing his daughter to break her betrothal - is actually (and quite obviously) dishonorable. And this kind of ambiguity exists in many characters besides Titus. Shakespeare consistently confounds dualisms - male/female, barbaric/civilized, weak/powerful - in ways that define his characters. Saturninus, for instance, is ambiguous in terms of his power. He has no power at the beginning of the play, but Titus soon grants him absolute power, after which he reveals himself to be under Tamora's control; thus he is defined by both the weakness of his character and the power of his official status as emperor. Tamora, too, is a character with innate ambiguities. She is sympathetic in her first appearance, when she is seen pleading for her son's life, but becomes increasingly unsympathetic as the play progresses. Moreover, she contains both masculine and feminine qualities - she attracts Saturninus because she is a "goodly lady," only to insist to the emperor, once she is his queen, "be ruled by me."
Even at the level of language, as in the oxymoron "irreligious piety," there is central ambiguity. The language of Titus reflects the actions of its characters. Notice that almost all of Titus is written in end-stopped poetry - that is to say, almost every line of poetry ends with a pause, whether a natural break in the syntax of a sentence or a punctuation mark. This is in some ways typical of early Shakespeare. His Henry VI plays, for instance, are composed almost completely in end-stopped lines. But in Titus this rigid, formal style, which contrasts so oddly with the chaotic actions contained in the style, enacts the kind of ambiguity we see on the level of characters. The poetry itself is like Titus - brutally formal, barbaric yet civilized, oxymoronic. Its blunt, rushing formality is quite noticeable when you read the lines aloud - as they would be, of course, in performance. The effect of so many regularized lines about such grotesque events is numbing; it subtly dehumanizes the speakers of the poetry, revealing the corrupt yet militaristically ordered society of the late Roman Empire. Just as Titus is hardly sympathetic, so too the poetry of his play is hardly human. Both characters and language cooperate in constructing the bleak stage - rigid yet chaotic - upon which the escalating tragedy of Titus unfolds.