Act 1, scene 1
The play begins in the fourth century AD in Rome, outside the Roman senate. The Roman emperor has died and a successor must be chosen. Saturnius, first son of the late emperor, lays claim to the title because he is the first-born son. He tries to rally support amongst the assembled tribunes (military and civil officers). Bassianus, his brother, also lays claim to the throne, based on what he sees as his merit. The matter is to be settled by an election.
Marcus Andronicus, a senior tribune, speaking to Saturnius and Bassianus, says that the people’s choice is neitherSaturnius nor Bassianus, but the military general Titus Andronicus, a great warrior who has been summoned home victoriousby the Roman senate from the wars against the Goths that have been going on for ten years. Marcus tells Saturnius to withdraw his claim to the emperor’s crown. Saturnius and Bassianus agree to withdraw their soldiers and submit their respective causes to the people.
Titus’s four sons, Martius, Mutius, Lucius, and Quintus enter. Two men carrying a coffin enter. Titus Andronicus enters, with his prisoners, Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and her three sons, Alarbus, Chiron, and Demetrius, and Aaron, the Moor. Titus makes a speech saying he is joyful to return to Rome. He has lost twenty-one sons in the battles. Lucius demands that a prisoner of the Goths be killed for revenge, and Titus agrees to hand over Alarbus, Tamora’s eldest son. Tamora protests, but Alarbus is taken away and brutally killed. Demetrius pledges revenge.
The coffin containing the body of one of Titus’s sons, is placed in a tomb.
Lavinia, Titus’s daughter, enters and greets her returning father. Then Marcus speaks, saying that in the election, the people of Rome have chosen Titus as their emperor. Titus declines the honor. He has been a general for forty years, he says, and is now too old to rule.
Saturnius then reiterates his own claim to be emperor. Titus gets the assembled tribunes to agree to whatever he proposes. He endorses Saturnius, and Saturnius is duly appointed emperor of Rome. Saturnius thanks Titus and says he will reward him. He says he will take Lavinia as his wife, making her empress of Rome. Titus promises his loyalty to Saturnius.
Saturnius promises Tamora she will be well treated and releases all the prisoners. He begins to court her.
Bassianus then claims Lavinia for himself. Marcus and Lucius support him but Titus calls them traitors. When one of his sons, Mutius, guards the door, preventing Titus from pursuing Bassianus, Marcus, and Lavinia, who have exited, Titus kills him. Lucius returns and rebukes him. Titus calls him a traitor too, and demands that Lavinia be restored to the emperor. But Lucius refuses, and exits.
Saturnius tells Titus that he does not need Lavinia. He says he does not trust or need Titus, accusing his sons of being traitors. He also says that Titus has been speaking disparagingly of him, saying that Saturnius begged him to be made emperor.
Saturnius then announces that he is taking Tamora as his wife. Tamora accepts graciously, pleased at her sudden elevation. Everyone exits except Titus, who is left feeling angry and hurt.
Marcus and Titus’s three surviving sons enter. Marcus rebukes his brother for killing Mutius. Titus denounces them all as traitors and refuses to allow Mutius to be buried alongside his brothers. The sons and Marcus plead with him to allow the burial. Reluctantly, Titus gives his consent, and the brothers place Mutius’s body in the tomb.
Saturnius, Tamora, her two sons, and Aaron the Moor enter, as do Bassianus and Lavinia. Saturnius accuses Bassianus, his brother, of treason for taking Lavinia, but Bassianus defends himself, saying he had a right to her. Saturnius hints that he may take revenge. Then Bassianus speaks up for Titus, commending his loyalty to the new emperor in opposing Bassianus’s claim to Lavinia. Bassianus asks that Titus be received back into good favor. Titus corrects him, claiming that he has always been loyal. Saturnius is not convinced, but Tamorapersuades him to accept Titus’s innocence. In an aside to Saturnius, however, Tamoraadvises him that accepting Titus is in his best interest; otherwise, the people may turn against him and support Titus. She adds that she will find a way of massacring the entire Andronicus family.
Titus thanks the emperor and Tamora. Tamoraspeaks graciously to him, saying that all quarrels are at an end. She tells Bassianus that she has told the emperor he will be more compliant. At Tamara’s instruction, Titus’s sons kneel and ask for pardon for taking Lavinia’s part. The emperor duly pardons them. He also speaks in a conciliatory way to Lavinia. They all agree to go hunting the next day.
Titus Andronicus is sometimes referred to as Shakespeare’s worst play. Almost certainly, it was the first tragedy he wrote, and is the least well regarded. It is also Shakespeare’s bloodiest, most brutal, and violent play by far. This long scene constitutes the entire first act. It gives ample demonstration of what is to come. First Alarbus, a prisoner of war, is hacked to pieces and burnt. That ensures that a series of tit-for-tat atrocities will be enacted, some of them off-stage but others on-stage. Tamorais already plotting her revenge for the killing of her son. Titus’s killing of his own son Mutius is another example of the unchecked violence of the play. But the horrors in this play of horrors has only just begun!
The first act well shows the themes that will dominate the play: betrayal, treachery, brutality, murder. In this it is typical of the revenge play, a type ofplay that was popular for decades on the Elizabethan stage. (Hamlet, a much later play, is also a revenge play.)
Titus is shown to have a noble and magnanimous side, refusing the emperor’s crown when it appears it was his for the taking, because he fears that at his age he will not be able to do justice to the office. However, whatever sympathy Titus might evoke from the audience is somewhat dissipated by his murder of his own son.
Commentators have been generally unimpressed by the quality of the verse in this act, and some have attributed it not to Shakespeare but to another dramatist, George Peele. One such scholar was John Dover Wilson, editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of the play in 1948, who declared that “Act 1, the product of a mind working mechanically, is a tissue of clichés in metre, sentence structure and phrasing” (p. xxix).