Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus Summary and Analysis of Act Five


Act Five opens outside the walls of Rome, where Lucius stands before his army of Goths. He announces that the Roman public desires the deposition of their emperor, and a Goth leader assures him that they too want to take revenge on Tamora. Another Goth enters leading Aaron and his child and says that the infant is the product of an adulterous affair between Tamora and the Moor. Lucius, remembering Aaron's plot to divest Titus of his hand, orders Aaron and the child to be hanged. Aaron says that he will confess to his many crimes in exchange for his child's life. Lucius agrees, and Aaron confesses to his affair with Tamora and his role in Lavinia's rape and mutilation, and admits to having masterminded the plot to execute Titus' sons. He goes on to admit to many other heinous crimes, causing Lucius to have him gagged and sentenced to a slow death. Aemilius then enters and tells Lucius that Saturninus wishes to see him at Titus' house for a parley.

Tamora, meanwhile, sets in motion her plot to destroy Titus. Accompanied by her sons, who are disguised as Rape and Murder, she comes to his house in the guise of the goddess Revenge. Titus immediately recognizes her, but she refuses to admit to her true identity. She talks Titus into joining her, while he all the while remarks how alike she and her companions are to the empress and her sons. He even instructs his visitors to kill Tamora and her sons, whom he says they will know by their similarity to themselves. Tamora then tells Titus to summon Lucius to the parley at his house, and Titus instructs Marcus to do as she bids. When Tamora and her sons ready themselves to leave, Titus insists that Rape and Murder stay with him. They do so, assuming that they'll be able to continue the charade.

As soon as Tamora leaves, however, Titus has Publius bind and gag her sons. He goes into the house for a knife and returns with Lavinia, who is holding a basin. Titus tells the rapists that he is going to slaughter them and bake their flesh and blood into a meat pie, which he will then serve at the parley banquet. He cuts their throats, and the baking begins.

Marcus and Lucius, meanwhile, make their way to the parley, where they meet Saturninus and his queen. Titus, dressed in cook's garb, sets up a table and serves his meat pies. As Saturninus eats, Titus asks him about the tale of Virginius and his daughter, who was violated and then slain. Saturninus agrees that Virginius was right to kill his daughter because she had been raped. Upon hearing this, Titus kills Lavinia. When Saturninus and Tamora ask why he would do such a thing, he tells them that Chiron and Demetrius raped and mutilated her. They ask for the boys to be fetched, but Titus declares that they are already dead and have been baked into the pies that sit on the table before them. He then kills Tamora, after which Saturninus stabs Titus, and Lucius slays Saturninus.

After the bloodshed has finished, Marcus and Lucius explain to the Roman elites the sad history of the Andronici: how Lavinia was raped and Bassianus killed, how Titus' sons were wrongfully executed and his hand needlessly chopped off, how Aaron and Tamora conceived a child, and so on. The Romans all agree that Titus' revenge was justified, and unanimously elect Lucius the next emperor of Rome. The remaining Andronici pay homage to Titus, and Lucius orders that Aaron the Moor be buried chest-deep in the ground and starved to death. He orders funeral rites for Titus and Saturninus, but declares that Tamora will not receive a proper burial: instead, she will be devoured by birds and wild beasts.


Although the characters in Titus occasionally evoke sympathy from the audience and from each other, Act Five contains very few instances of such pity or understanding. In Act Five, the brutality that runs rampant throughout the play comes to a horrifying climax that leaves few of the major characters still standing. And Shakespeare doesn't just kill his characters-he slays them in such elaborate and grotesque ways that one wonders whether these characters held any personal significance for the playwright. Just as Titus relishes each detail of his final revenge - not merely killing Chiron and Demetrius, but cooking them into meat pies and feeding them to their mother; not merely killing Lavinia, but doing so in a strikingly theatrical, undignified manner - so too Shakespeare seems driven in these final pages to unleash the darkest parts of his imagination. He thrusts his audience into a nightmare and, to some degree, seems quite delighted by the result. Perhaps Titus belongs as much to the modern horror movie genre as to the Elizabethan revenge tragedy.

The first character forced to face his fate is Aaron. The audience sympathizes with the Moor, having been made privy to his paternal, selfless nature, but the characters in the play are unified in their desire to take their revenge on him. Everyone agrees that Aaron's son is an abomination, bringing shame to all parties involved. Even Tamora is not allowed a proper burial at the play's end. Her lust for a black man has transformed her into a wild animal in the eyes of the Roman elites, and so they leave her to the mercy of the beasts.

In sharp contrast to his portrayal in the beginning of the play, Aaron is at least partially redeemed in Act Five. In a magnificent speech, he declares, "I have done a thousand dreadful things / As willingly as one would kill a fly, / And nothing grieves me heartily indeed / But that I cannot do ten thousand more." This speech is a true tour de force, as extravagant in its macabre language as Titus is in his macabre actions. Aaron self-consciously allegorizes his misdeeds; it is as though he considers himself the very embodiment of evil. We know, however, from his concern for his child that he is not wholly inhuman - the speech is thus quite clearly a performance, an act of defiance in the face of a society that scorns him. Even at the play's end, facing unspeakable torment, Aaron does not waver from his ideals: his courage is in itself a sort of victory. Aaron's sentence is a fascinating example of the bodily violations that are so common in Titus: in being buried up to his chest he is both mutilated and left intact, both living and dead. His body will literally be swallowed by the country that he so despises.

Another notable performance - and a decidedly unsuccessful one - occurs when Tamora and her sons don disguises to go before Titus. Their attempt to mock Titus' revenge and ruin him at the banquet is the most egregious miscalculation in the play. Without their help, Titus may have never been presented with the opportunity for such a horrific revenge. Indeed, prior to their arrival before him he seemed content to continue his letter-writing approach. Instead, he succeeds at dehumanizing her on an almost unimaginable level: the consumption of one's own children is a distinctly unnatural act more suited to a beast than to a person. Just as she is "against nature" in sleeping with Aaron and controlling her husband, so too she disobeys the dictates of nature by engaging in cannibalism. The gruesomeness of her punishment, however, is truly horrifying - perhaps even out of proportion to the crimes she has committed. Despite the extent of her misdeeds, we must remember that it was Titus' own barbarity in Act One that spurred her on. Indeed, Titus is largely responsible for the tragedy that befalls his family: it was he who made Saturninus emperor and sacrificed Alarbus. His barbarity in Act Five, however much he may view it as due justice, mirrors his barbarity in Act One, leaving us with a decidedly ambiguous opinion of the plays "hero".

Yet Titus' most unforgivable act - one even more horrible than the punishment he doles out to Tamora's sons - is almost surely his killing of Lavinia. In case his audience holds any lingering doubts about how Titus views his daughter, here Shakespeare shows us the extent to which he sees her as chattel. The fact that she has been grossly violated barely registers with Titus in comparison to the damage that he believes has been done to his own reputation and person. He kills his daughter - his "property" - so that "by her presence" she can no longer "renew his sorrows." The spark of agency that Lavinia showed from time to time even after her mutilation is abruptly snuffed out, as if to prove that a woman in Rome has no agency at all. Despite the ghastly pies and the cold-hearted slaughter of Lavinia, despite all the trumpery surrounding the ascension of Lucius, Rome's ambiguous status as a barbarous yet civilized state remains unchanged.