As Act Five of Titus Andronicus begins, things are coming to a head. Somewhere on the outskirts of Rome, Lucius is mustering his troops, his army of Goths. It’s a little unclear why the Goths would join Lucius since Titus was once their “terror” (V.i.10), but the reason seems to center around their former queen: they want to “be avenged on cursed Tamora” (V.i.16).
funny aside: after the Goth representative says this, all the Goths respond, “And as he saith, so say we all with him” (V.i.18; emphasis mine)… pretty cool for all you Battlestar Galactica fans, eh?
Enter another Goth leading a prisoner… our ol’ buddy er villain Aaron with his babe. Lucius begins to interrogate Aaron, but when he will not talk, Lucius calls for a ladder so that father and newborn son can be hanged… and the son will hang first. This causes Aaron to plead for his son’s life. I gotta wonder if Aaron would be so fatherly if the offspring had been either white or a girl or both…
If they spare the child’s life, Aaron says that he will give them information that will “advantage” (V.i.56) the invading army. Lucius agrees, and Aaron begins to spill: the baby is his and Tamora’s, her sons killed Bassianus and raped and mutilated Lavinia (at Aaron’s own urging), Aaron led Martius and Quintus to the pit and set them up to take the blame for Bassianus’ death, Aaron wrote the letter and hid the gold, Aaron lied to have Titus chop of his own hand, and when Aaron saw the heads of the sons returned to the father, he laughed so hard he cried. When Lucius asks if Aaron is sorry for what he has done, the reply is chilling, but completely in keeping for a villain:
Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.
— V.i.124, 141-144
That “fly” reference is pretty interesting, as it ties him philosophically with Marcus and Titus (refer to Act Three, Scene Two)… Is Shakespeare equating Aaron’s villainy with Titus’ obsessive vengeance?
After all this, Lucius calls for Aaron not to be hanged, as that would be to good (“sweet” [V.i.146]) for the Moor. But he also wants Aaron’s mouth gagged, as he doesn’t want to hear him speak. Into the scene, the Roman ambassador Aemilius arrives to offer the parley; it is agreed to, and we move on.
Scene Two finds Tamora and her sons costumed before Titus’ house; they have assumed the guises of Revenge, Rape and Murder (respectively) in an attempt to drive an already deranged man crazy. When she says she wants to talk, he says he wants nothing to do with Tamora; the empress has to jump though some verbal hoops to convince him that she’s Revenge. Once convinced, he calls for the spirits to search out those of their ilk and kill them. It’s quite the rant, and Tamora feeds the seeming lunacy. She then says that Lucius is coming with an army, and that the emperor wants a parley to take place at Titus’ home. Titus agrees, and “Murder” begins to leave with her partners. Titus stops her and says he wants Rape and Murder to stay, or else he’ll call off the parley. As mother and sons discuss their staying, Titus asides to the audience that he wasn’t insane and that he has a plan.
Tamora leaves, Titus has his kinsmen tie up the two brothers, and calls for their mouths to be gagged (like son, like father). Titus steps offstage and returns with a knife… and Lavinia with a bowl. Titus confronts them with their crimes, and their punishment?
Hark, wretches! how I mean to martyr you.
This one hand yet is left to cut your throats,
Whilst that Lavinia 'tween her stumps doth hold
The basin that receives your guilty blood.
You know your mother means to feast with me,
I will grind your bones to dust
And with your blood and it I'll make a paste,
And make two pasties of your shameful heads,
And bid that strumpet, your unhallow'd dam,
Like to the earth swallow her own increase.
For worse than Philomel you used my daughter,
And worse than Progne I will be revenged:
And now prepare your throats. Lavinia, come
— V.ii.180-184, 186-187, 189-191, 193-195
Philomel is a character from Ovid’s Metamorphosis (remember Act Four’s revelation via literature). Philomel was raped and mutilated by Tereus; she was avenged by her sister Procne, who just happened to be Tereus’ wife. Procne killed her son Irys and fed him to Tereus. But Titus wants to go further. And the rapists’ throats are cut as the penultimate scene ends.
The final scene begins with Lucius and his uncle Marcus meeting in front of Titus’ home. Lucius fears that something is afoot, and calls for Marcus to make sure his army is ready to attack immediately. The emperor and empress (and assorted tribunes and others) arrive, a banquet table is brought out, and then “enter Titus like a cook” (V.iii.25ff s.d.). Titus serves his guests the meat pies he’s cooked, and as they are enjoying his meal, he asks Saturninus a philosophical question: did the Roman Virginius act morally when he killed his own daughter because she had been raped?
Saturninus responds in the affirmative because her shame was too great and her father would be forced to “renew his sorrows” (V.iii.42) every time he saw her. Titus accepts the rationale, and because of it, he stabs and kills his own daughter Lavinia. Titus explains that she had been raped, and when Tamora has the nerve to ask why he killed his daughter, her voice is the nudge that the dominoes needed:
Not I; 'twas Chiron and Demetrius:
They ravish'd her, and cut away her tongue;
And they, 'twas they, that did her all this wrong.
Go fetch them hither to us presently.
Why, there they are both, baked in that pie;
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.
'Tis true, 'tis true; witness my knife's sharp point.
[He stabs TAMORA]
Die, frantic wretch, for this accursed deed!
[He stabs TITUS]
Can the son's eye behold his father bleed?
There's meed for meed, death for a deadly deed!
[He stabs SATURNINUS.]
There’s a technical phrase for this in literature. This is a “holy sh!t” moment. It’s a specialized term, use it properly.
Some editions add to the last stage direction: “A great tumult”, but that seems redundant.
A Roman tribune calls for an explanation, and Lucius sums up his perspective in 20 lines. Marcus brings for the child and discusses Aaron’s role in all this. Aemilius calls for the tribunes to make Lucius the new emperor, and they do. Lucius and family take a moment to grieve, and then the new emperor passes judgment on Aaron the Moor.
After all this vengeance, after all this death, you’d think that Lucius would go another route: and he does, he offers pardon. No, wait, that won’t happen until the END of Shakespeare’s career in The Tempest. No, Lucius was right earlier when he said that hanging was too good for Aaron:
Set him breast-deep in earth, and famish him;
There let him stand, and rave, and cry for food;
If any one relieves or pities him,
For the offence he dies. This is our doom
Aaron is unrepentant to the end, stating that if he did one good thing in his life, then that‘s what he’s sorry for.
Lucius has one last speech. You’d figure that he’d want to say something about Rome, maybe about moving forward. And you’d be wrong again: he simply gives out burial directions for the emperor and his father and his sister… and Tamora. While the others are to be buried in their tombs, Tamora is to be left for the “beasts and birds to prey” (V.iii.198).
And he closes the play with these two lines:
Her life was beastly, and devoid of pity;
And, being dead, let birds on her take pity!
Thus, the play ends, not with human forgiveness, but with only the possibility of avian pity. Pity is out of the question for these humans.
Is Shakespeare making a larger statement here?
NOTE: in the Second Quarto edition, there are an additional four lines; but editors feel that these lines were someone else’s attempt to reconstruct a text from a bad copy of the First Quarto (which doesn’t include the lines)