Titus Andronicus | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Titus Andronicus | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

The emperor of Rome has died. Outside the Capitol, near the tomb of the Andronicus family, the emperor's sons Saturninus and Bassianus each proclaim they should be elected emperor. Marcus Andronicus, a tribune of the people, announces the people have chosen as emperor Titus Andronicus, a respected Roman general who has spent 10 years fighting the Goths and lost 21 sons in the process. Both brothers yield graciously to the decision, dismissing their supporters.

Titus Andronicus returns from war, followed by his four living sons and the body of his recently slain son. He has brought as prisoners the Queen of the Goths, Tamora, her three sons, and other Goths, including Aaron the Moor.

Titus lays his dead son to rest in the family tomb. His eldest son Lucius takes the eldest Goth prince, Alarbus, to sacrifice to the gods. Tamora pleads with Titus to show mercy and spare her son, but he refuses, saying it is necessary for the religious ceremony. Alarbus is taken to be quartered. Tamora and her sons promise to take revenge on Titus. The coffin is laid in the tomb and Lavinia, Titus's daughter, comes to pay her respects.

Titus's brother Marcus Andronicus informs Titus of the peoples' decision to elect him emperor. Titus declines, saying he is too old and has already served his country as a soldier for 40 years. Saturninus rescinds his endorsement and threatens to secure the throne through violence. Titus endorses Saturninus, the elder brother, for the throne over his brother Bassianus. The people accept his decision and elect Saturninus emperor.

Saturninus thanks Titus and offers to marry his daughter Lavinia, even though Lavinia is already betrothed to Bassianus. Titus accepts, and turns Tamora over to Saturninus as a prisoner. Saturninus is attracted to Tamora and regrets offering to marry Lavinia so quickly.

Bassianus, assisted by Marcus and Titus's sons, kidnaps Lavinia. Titus, outraged by this treason against the emperor and betrayal of his own will, kills his son Mutius, who is blocking his path. Saturninus, however, quickly agrees to let Bassianus have her, although he accuses Titus of secretly supporting this upheaval. He announces he will marry Tamora. She agrees, and they leave to get married. Titus feels hurt by the actions of his family and his emperor. His brother and sons return, upset that he has slain Mutius. They demand Mutius be buried in the family tomb, but Titus refuses, saying he is not worthy. The others persist, begging him to pardon Mutius. Titus relents, and they bury Mutius.

Marcus and Titus discuss Tamora's sudden advancement. Titus hopes he will prosper by it since he brought Tamora to Rome. Saturninus and Tamora return, now married, as do Bassianus and Lavinia. Saturninus and Bassianus make an uneasy peace, and Bassianus claims Titus had no part in the abduction. Tamora also vouches for Titus's innocence, then pulls Saturninus aside and tells him he must pardon Titus or risk the anger of the Roman citizenry. After all, he does not want to seem ungrateful for Titus's brave deeds. Tamora promises she will find a way to get revenge on the Andronicus family. Saturninus absolves Titus. Tamora tells Bassianus and Lavinia they need not fear retribution from the emperor as long as they behave themselves. Marcus and Titus's sons are pardoned, and the company goes to enjoy a double bridal feast. Titus tells Saturninus he will arrange a hunt for the following morning.

Analysis

The play's lengthy first scene (the entirety of Act 1) opens at a moment of transition for Rome—a shift in power due to the death of the emperor. The transition will not be smooth. Rome is past its height and in the midst of its slow decline, and its politics reflect this. First, the late emperor's sons jockey for power. Each son feels entitled to his father's position—Saturninus because he is the eldest and Bassianus because he is such a great guy. Yet this fraternal dispute is quickly upended as Marcus Andronicus says the people have instead chosen Titus. Titus doesn't want the job, however, and supports Saturninus as emperor.

Unfortunately, Saturninus immediately shows himself to be a poor decision maker. He first says he will marry Lavinia, then he wants Tamora. Even though he wants Tamora, he remains angry that Titus's family tried to prevent him from marrying Lavinia. He immediately elevates Tamora to the position of empress. Unlike her new husband, Tamora has resolve and determination. She immediately begins influencing Saturninus with her counsel, and he seems willing to be told what to do. This crisis in leadership provides the context for the bloodbath that is to come—an idea that becomes clear at the end of the play when a new emperor takes over pledging to make sure this situation never happens again.

The main conflict and themes of the play are each introduced in this scene, along with the cast of characters. The religious sacrifice of Tamora's eldest son, despite her pleading, prompts her to vow vengeance on the entire Andronicus family. The conflict between Tamora and Titus Andronicus drives the plot. Obviously, revenge is a major theme of the play. Tamora's revenge will bring retribution from Titus, forming a chain of events that ends in the deaths of most of the major characters. Violence plays a large role in the revenge, but it is also developed as its own theme over the course of the play. Even in this first scene, violence is seen as a tool of justice—Titus Andronicus is lauded as a warrior, whose sword "brought to yoke the enemies of Rome." Violence is seen as good and admirable in some contexts. Later in the play, as the violence escalates, this theme will develop with additional nuance. Where does violence come from? What conditions allow for its perpetuation? Is it an instinct—as it is in wild animals—or is it learned? The play asks these philosophical questions even as the violence onstage reaches a fever pitch. Finally, the theme of family obligations is introduced here. A father is dead, and his sons argue over who will be his successor. Tamora's son is killed. Titus has already lost over 20 of his sons in battle and yet kills one of his few remaining sons with his own hand. The obligations of parents to their children, and children to their parents, will be an important aspect of the play.

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