Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus Summary and Analysis of Act Two


Aaron the Moor, standing alone on the stage, declares that he plans to catch a ride on Tamora's coattails: she has gone from being a lowly prisoner to one of the most important people in Rome, and Aaron, her lover, plans to use her newfound leverage for his own betterment. Suddenly, Chiron and Demetrius rush in, fighting with one another about which of them is more worthy of Lavinia's love: it seems they have both fallen for Bassianus' new wife. Aaron, quickly seeing through their clichéd declarations of love, hatches a plot so that they might both rape Lavinia during the scheduled hunt, and the boys readily agree to the idea.

On to the hunt, then, where Titus and his sons meet with the emperor and his attendants. Aaron, meanwhile, hides a bag of gold under a tree in the forest (part of his plot to undo Lavinia and Bassianus). Tamora soon breaks off from the main hunting party to meet Aaron. She tries to initiate sex with him, but he resists; he's more in the mood for murder. Suddenly, Bassianus and Lavinia come upon the lovers. They mock Tamora for lusting after a black man, and Bassianus tells Tamora that he is going to tell Saturninus all about what he has witnessed.

Just as Bassanius and Lavinia are about to leave to tell the emperor about the tryst, Chiron and Demetrius happen along. Tamora tells her sons that Bassianus and Lavinia enticed her to the spot in order to torment her, and Chiron and Demetrius fatally stab Bassianus in retribution. Tamora then moves to stab Lavinia, but her sons stop her, explaining that they want to rape her instead. Lavinia, horrified at the prospect of such a violation, begs Tamora to intervene with her sons, but Tamora refuses, reminding Lavinia that Titus was deaf to her own pleas for Alarbus' life. When Lavinia begs Tamora to kill her rather than allow her to be raped, Tamora leaves her to be dealt with at her sons' discretion. Chiron and Demetrius, following Aaron's orders, throw Bassianus' body in a hole and drag Lavinia offstage.

Just then, Aaron enters with Quintus and Martius, two of Titus' sons, in tow. He leads them to the pit where Chiron and Demetrius placed Bassianus' body, saying that a panther lies there asleep. The hole is concealed, and Martius stumbles in only to find Bassianus' body, which he recognizes because of a distinctive ring that shines in the darkness. Quintus, in an effort to save his brother, falls into the hole himself. Aaron leads Saturninus to the hole, where he is informed that his brother has been found dead. Aaron's plot unfolds further when Tamora and Titus enter with a letter insinuating that Martius and Quintus murdered Bassianus for the bag of gold. Aaron then "finds" the bag of gold in question, which is still lying in the very place that he hid it. Saturninus is thus convinced of the Andronici's guilt and orders them to be executed without a trial, despite Titus' pleas.

A ghastly scene follows, as Chiron and Demetrius drag the wretched Lavinia onstage. She is still alive, but her tongue has been cut out and her hands chopped off to prevent her from identifying her rapists. They mock her hideous condition, and then exit. Marcus enters and, in a long-winded speech, laments Lavinia's mutilated appearance. He finally gathers that she has been raped, and exits with her in search of Titus.


The final scene of Act Two is by far the most disturbing scene in a play rife with violence and murder. By presenting his audience with the spectacle of Lavinia's ravished, mutilated body, Shakespeare offers us the supreme metamorphosis: a beauty transformed into a beast. It is fitting, then, that Marcus draws upon the tale of Terseus and Philomel (from Ovid's Metamorphosis) when presenting her to Saturninus. The spectacle of Lavinia's woeful transformation speaks for itself despite her muteness; that fact, however, does not stop Marcus from trying to speak for her, for better or for worse.

Marcus' speech upon finding Lavinia contains some of the best poetry in the play - or, at least, some of its most self-consciously poetic. Consider these words: "Alas, a crimson river of warm blood, / Like to a bubbling fountain stirred with wind, / Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips, / Coming and going with thy honey breath." These lines are monstrously incongruous with the spectacle onstage. Marcus takes Lavinia's appearance as an opportunity to wax poetic, to explore comparisons and allusions. He beautifies her ugliness, but in such a forced and inappropriate manner that his speech was routinely cut from earlier productions of Titus.

Indeed, Marcus' speech is either one of the most inept miscalculations of Shakespeare's career, or a remarkable example of deliberate incongruity. Many critics have sided with the former estimation, but there is a strong case to be made for the latter. The rape and mutilation of Lavinia is the key action of the play - it sets into motion Titus' quest for vengeance, and is also the central image of the play, representing many of the play's thematic concerns. Lavinia's loss of her hands and tongue, for instance, represents her loss of agency - the loss of her ability to speak or act against manipulation by those who seek to victimize her. Lavinia herself personifies the Roman state - she is even called "Rome's royal mistress" in the first Act - and her rape symbolizes, in the bluntest way possible, the corruption of Rome by the barbarous Goths.

If Lavinia's mutilation and rape, then, is so central to the play's imagery, Marcus' incongruous response to her misery must be interpreted as an example of the futility of language in the face of such horror. The disconnect that we saw in Act One between poetic, metered speech and gruesome violence reaches a climax in Marcus' speech. Marcus' poetic talents are too meager to effectively convey the extent of Lavinia's suffering, though his limitations don't stop him from trying to do so. In a similar manner, Titus and his entourage generally fail to speak or act with any real impact. Lavinia may have had her hands and tongue chopped off, but her allies are equally (if less literally) bereft of tongues and hands, and are incapable of opposing the corrupt Rome that raped her.

No analysis of Act Two would be complete without a word about Aaron. He, like the other major characters in Titus, is a walking contradiction: Shakespeare paints him as the stereotypically evil black man who haunted the imaginations of his contemporaries, but also infused his character with a surprising degree of sympathy. That sympathy, needless to say, is hardly apparent in Act Two, but it does come later. For now, notice how much fun Aaron has with language. His speech is full of macabre puns and innuendos - his ability to manipulate language, indeed, mirrors his facility at manipulating people. Aaron is the opposite of Marcus: he is capable of finding just the right words for the occasion, and his speeches are never fumbling or long-winded.