Act One: Immediately into the Blood

OK, as I mentioned on Saturday, Act One, Scene One, of Titus Andronicus is the longest first scene in all of Shakespeare (at 498 lines, it’s longer than five plays’ entire first acts; the next longest is Much Ado About Nothing, at 312 lines).  With all that length, you might suspect a quiet opening, a slow expositional build to content.  And you’d be wrong.  It begins with a flourish, literally, as the Roman Senators and Tribunes enter, then followed onstage–through opposite doors–the late (and unnamed) emperor’s sons, Saturninus and his younger brother, Bassianus, and THEIR soldiers.

That’s a boatload of people on stage… more than enough to grab the audience’s attention.

Each wants the throne; Saturninus’ claim is by birthright and -order, while Bassianus wants a “pure election” (I.i.16).  One of the Tribunes, however, as another idea: he believes the general Titus Andronicus, returning victorious after his campaign against the Goths, should be the new emperor… of course, said Tribune just happens to be Marcus Andronicus (Titus’ brother).

Surprisingly, neither brother argues against this (though neither, either, do they agree to it). Their soldiers are dismissed, and within moments, in comes Titus with two of his sons carrying a coffin, two other sons, as well as Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her three sons, and Aaron the Moor … and, as the stage direction puts it: “and others as many as can be” (I.i.72ff s.d.). [Again with the crowded stage…]

Titus speaks, and tells of his experience in the war… having brought only the only surviving sons of the “five and twenty valiant sons” (I.i.82) he took to war.  He doesn’t mention how long they’ve been at war, but over the course of it, he’s lost 21 sons.  That’s one hell of a sacrifice (and one that could win the support of the Senate), and reason for even a rationale man to want revenge…. revenge that his son Lucius wants immediately:


Give us the proudest prisoner of the Goths,
That we may hew his limbs, and on a pile
Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh,
Before this earthy prison of their bones;
That so the shadows be not unappeased,
Nor we disturb'd with prodigies on earth.

— I.i.99-104

He wants Tamora’s son to be executed so that the ghosts of the Roman war-dead are appeased (this would include, I’m sure, his 21 dead brothers).  And Titus agrees, despite the protestations of Tamora, the soon-to-be-executed prisoner (it’s a pretty good speech, appealing to him as a parent, as a soldier, even as a nearly god-like super-human… but to no avail). The execution and dismemberment takes place immediately off-stage.

We then meet Titus’ only daughter, Lavinia, who bemoans the deaths of her brothers, but cheers her father’s return.  Marcus again calls for his brother’s advancement to emperor, but Titus refuses, citing his “age and feebleness” (I.i.191).  Saturninus again pushes for Titus’s support (churlishly); Bassianus tells Titus that he will not flatter him, but will honor him (is this a preview of Cordelia and Lear?)… and Saturninus gets his way and the emperor-ship.

Saturninus then tells Titus that as reward for his support, the new emperor will choose Lavinia as his bride.  Titus hands her over, as well as his prisoners (the Goths), proclaiming Tamora now “prisoner to an emperor” (I.i.261).

Then, within 20 lines of taking Lavinia as his bride-to-be, Saturninus–in as aside–states that he would rather have Tamora as his bride, and then even announces to the assembly that he can make Tamora “greater than the Queen of Goths” (I.i.272). Unbelievably, he even asks Lavinia if she’s OK with these statements.  What’s Lavinia supposed to say?  She goes along…. which is weird since…

Bassianus seizes Lavinia as his “betrothed” (I.i.289).  Lavinia’s brothers support this (they must have known), but Papa Titus not so much.  He calls them traitors as they and Bassianus and Lavinia flee the stage.  When one of his sons, Mutius (is this the root of the word mutiny?  I’m going to need to check that out) attempts to stop Titus from giving chase,


Titus kills him.

— I.i.294ff s.d.

Titus kills HIS OWN SON.

We already have had two deaths and we’re less than 300 lines into the play.

Titus doesn’t exactly seem stable here. [of course, he’s a military man, one that believes in the chain of command… he has promised his daughter to the Emperor… I can see why he thinks the way he does… don’t agree with it, but I get it…] This freaks out his son Lucius, but Titus will have none of it, and basically disowns his sons, who “would never so dishonor (him)” (I.1.298).  He demands that Lucius return Lavinia to the emperor, but Lucius seems to have inherited some of his personality and sense of twisted logic from his father:


Dead, if you will; but not to be his wife,
That is another's lawful promised love.

— I.i.300-301

He is willing to kill his sister rather than taking her away from her betrothed (Bassianus).  At this point, Saturninus gets his opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak: he casts aside Lavinia (he wants Tamora now), and he can turn on Andronicus and his family (since Saturninus feels that he had “beg… the empire at (Titus’) hands” (I.i.310).

Titus is hurt by the words, and to make matters worse, Saturninus publicly asks Tamora if she approves of his decision.  [uh, she does… duh]  And he takes the Queen of Goths for his wife, and leaves to “consummate” (I.i.340) the marriage.

Titus’ sons want to bury Mutius in the family tomb, but Titus again wants none of this.  It takes nearly 50 lines of argument (touching upon the dead’s virtue, his bloodline, religious ceremony, nature), before Titus is finally convinced by the argument of Roman nationalism, appealing ultimately to Titus’ militarism.

Once Titus makes his decision to allow the burial, all is good again with his family, and he and Marcus can now discuss how Tamora has “of a sudden … advanced in Rome” (I.i.396).  Titus asks,


Is she not then beholding to the man
That brought her for this high good turn so far?

— I.i.399-400

He asks if Tamora should be beholden to him (Titus), since he has brought her to Rome and given her to the new Emperor Saturninus.  Then, depending on the edition, he answers his own question (in other editions, Marcus answers) to the affirmative:

Yes, and will nobly him remunerate.

— I.i.401

This could be optimistic foreshadowing… but we will learn this is bloody ironic.  Saturninus and Bassianus return to stage to quarrel more, mostly over Lavinia, of whom Saturninus accuses Bassianus of “rape” (I.i.407), here meaning kidnapping (but heaping-irony alert, readers).  Bassianus proclaims his legal standing and defends Titus’ actions, saying that Titus had been “in honor wronged” (I.i.410) in the matter, as it led to the death of his son.  Titus, towing the chain of command, refuses Bassianus’ support and stays loyal to Saturnine.  Tamora publicly comes to Titus’ support, but in an aside to Saturninus reveals that she”‘ll find a day to massacre them all” (I.i.453)… and this is not irony but true foreshadowing.

In other words, this is going to get VERY bloody.

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