Titus Andronicus is one of William Shakespeare's earliest plays, written, along with The Comedy of Errors, in 1590. In form it is Shakespeare's take on the revenge tragedy, hugely popular with Elizabethan audiences. Later audiences aspired to a more refined taste. It has seen a number of modern film and stage revivals, the central theme of revenge resonating with contemporary directors. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival refers to its 2011 production as "Shakespeare's slasher play".
As the play opens, Saturninus and Bassianus, the sons of the late Roman Emperor, are addressing the Roman people, each seeking to become Emperor. Their orations are cut short by the triumphant return of Titus Andronicus, who has defeated the rebellious Gauls. Titus brings with him his surviving sons and his captives: Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her Moorish lover, Aaron, and her sons.
Two of Titus's sons have died in battle. Titus sacrifices Tamora's eldest son to propitiate their spirits.
Titus's brother Marcus, one of the Tribunes of Rome, nominates Titus as Emperor. Titus declines, instead settling the dispute between Saturninus and Bassianus in favor of Saturninus.
The new Emperor offers to marry Lavinia, the daughter of Titus. She is betrothed to Bassianus. Titus is outraged when Lavinia and Bassianus make their escape aided by some of the younger members of the Andronicii.
Saturninus, meanwhile, has become infatuated with Tamora. He will marry her instead. Lavinia and Bassianus return and are reconciled to the Emperor.
Aaron now reveals himself to be a villain, in many respects the prototype for Iago in Shakespeare's later play, Othello. Lavinia and Bassianus, along with the other members of Titus's family, accompany the Emperor and Tamora on a hunt. He goads Tamara's surviving sons into brutally raping and mutilating Lavinia and killing Bassianus.
Lavinia's tongue is cut out and her hands are cut off; she in a state of mental collapse. She is utterly unable to communicate what has happened. Aaron plants evidence implicating Titus's sons in the murder of Bassianus; they are then executed.
Titus sends his surviving adult son, Lucius, to raise an army among the Goths. Meanwhile, Lavinia is finally able to communicate the truth, by using a copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses and writing in the dust.
In the final scene the Emperor and Empress have been invited to Titus's home to negotiate with Lucius. Titus kills his daughter and feeds the Empress meat pies made from the bodies of her sons. Saturnius kills Titus and is in turn killed by Lucius. Lucius is declared Emperor. Aaron, who has been captured by the Goths, is led away to be executed, unrepentant to the end.