Act 4, scene 1
Lavinia is chasing young Lucius, who has books under his arm. He doesn’t know why she is chasing him, but Titus and Marcus realize she must have something in mind. Titus thinks she wants to see a particular book. Lavinia starts to turn the pages of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Titus notes that she has stopped turning the pages and it taking note of the tale of Philomela, as alluded to in Act 2, scene 4. Philomela was raped by Tereus, who cut out her tongue. Titus deduces that Lavinia was also raped. He asks her to give signs as to who her assailant was. To help her, Marcus writes his name in a sand pit, using his staff and guiding it with his feet and mouth. Lavinia takes the staff and guides it with her stumps. She writes the Latin word “stuprum,” meaning rape, and then the names Chiron and Demetrius. Marcus swears to have deadly revenge. Titus counsels him to beware of Tamora, and indicates that he has a plan for how they can go about their task.
Classical sources such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses are important in this play, and in this scene it is even named directly. Ovid was a poet of ancient Rome, and his Metamorphosesconsists of a series of mythic tales of transformation. Shakespeare knew Ovid through the translation by Arthur Golding in 1565. The myth of Philomel occurs in Book 10 of the Metamorphoses.
Now the identity of the rapists is known, the plot can begin to move toward its climax.
Act 4, scene 2
Aaron, Chiron, and Demetrius enter, as does Lucius and one other character, who bring weapons with written verses attached. Lucius tells the brothers that Titus has sent them some gifts, referring to the brothers as “the hope of Rome.” Lucius, in two asides, makes it clear he knows that the brothers are guilty of rape and have been detected.
After Lucius exits, Demetrius reads the scroll attached to the weapons. It is a Latin verse from the poet Horace stating that a man who is upright and commits no crime needs no weapons. Aaron realizes immediately that Titus has discovered the guilt of the brothers. But Chiron and Demetrius appear not to realize that they have been found out.
The emperor’s trumpets sound, and the brothers are sure it is an announcement that Tamora, who is pregnant, has just given birth.
A nurse enters with a black baby. She is distressed because it means that everyone will know that Aaron not the emperor is the father. Chiron and Demetrius are appalled, and denounce Aaron. Chiron says the baby must die, but Aaron opposes him. Demetrius is ready to kill the baby instantly. But Aaron says he will kill anyone who even touches the baby. Demetrius asks if he is willing to betray his mistress, who according to the nurse wants the baby killed, but Aaron remains defiant. Chiron and Demetrius say that their mother will be forever shamed, and the nurse adds that the emperor will have her put to death. He appeals to Chiron and Demetrius, saying that the baby is their half-brother. Demetrius softens his attitude and says they will be guided by Aaron’s advice. He withdraws his threat to kill the baby.
Aaron and Demetrius ask how many people have seen the baby. The nurse says only herself and the midwife, in addition to Tamora.
Aaron kills the nurse to stop her gossiping about the birth. He then says that the wife of a countryman of his who lives nearby has just given birth to a white child. He tells the brothers to make the following arrangement with the man: in exchange for gold, he will give up her child. The circumstances will be explained to her, and she will be told that the child will be raised as the emperor’s son. Aaron then asks that the midwife be sent to him (so he can kill her).
The brothers exit to put the scheme into practice.
Titus has shown an ingenious way of letting Chiron and Demetrius know that they have been found out, although it appears as if only Aaron understands the significance of the verse by Horace. It is not clear what advantage Titus hopes to gain, though, from letting his enemies know he is after them, unless he wants to scare them in advance.
Incidentally, in the text of the play, the Latin quotation by Horace is not translated. All modern editions of the play include a footnote in which the lines are translated, but it appears as if Shakespeare expected his audience to understand the Latin with no help.
In this scene Aaron fully emerges as what E. M. W. Tillyard, in Shakespeare’s History Plays, called a “magnificent comic villain” (p. 138). Indeed, playgoers have often found Aaron, in spite of his villainy, to be the most impressive character in the play because of his vitality, ingenuity, and self-confidence. He does not fit into Roman society and is a lone figure, but he is determined to advance his fortunes to their zenith. In his enthusiasm and ambition and utter ruthlessness he resembles Edmund in King Lear, another well-developed Shakespearean villain.