The Emperor of Rome has died and his sons Saturninus and Bassianus are squabbling over (Bisticciando su) who will succeed him. The Tribune of the People, Marcus Andronicus, announces that the people's choice for new emperor is his brother, Titus Andronicus, a Roman general newly returned from ten years' campaigning against the empire's foes (Nemici), the Goths. Titus enters Rome to much fanfare, bearing (conducendo) with him Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her sons, and Aaron the Moor. Titus feels a religious duty to sacrifice Tamora’s eldest son, Alarbus, in order to avenge (vendicare) his sons, dead from the war, and allow them to rest in peace. Tamora begs for the life of Alarbus, but Titus refuses her pleas. Tamora secretly plans a horrible revenge for Titus and all of his remaining sons.
Titus Andronicus refuses the throne in favour of the late emperor's eldest son Saturninus, much to Saturninus' delight. The two agree that Saturninus will marry Titus' daughter Lavinia. However, Bassianus was previously betrothed (fidanzato) to the girl. Titus' surviving sons help them escape the marriage. In the fighting, Titus kills his son Mutius. Titus is angry with his sons because in his eyes they are disloyal (sleali) to Rome. The new emperor, Saturninus, marries Tamora instead.
During a hunting party the next day, Tamora's lover, Aaron the Moor, meets Tamora's sons Chiron and Demetrius. The two are arguing over which should take sexual advantage of the newlywed Lavinia. They are easily persuaded by Aaron to ambush ( tendere un’imboscata a) Bassianus and kill him in the presence of Tamora and Lavinia, in order to have their way with her. Lavinia begs Tamora to stop her sons, but Tamora refuses. Chiron and Demetrius throw Bassianus' body in a pit, as Aaron had directed them, then they take Lavinia away and rape her. To keep her from revealing what she has seen and endured, they cut out her tongue and her hands. This mutilation provides a source for black comedy throughout the play.
Aaron brings Titus' sons Martius and Quintus to the scene and frames them for the murder of Bassianus with a forged (falsificata) letter outlining their plan to kill him. Angry, the Emperor arrests them. Marcus then discovers Lavinia and takes her to her father. When she and Titus are reunited, he is overcome with grief. He and his remaining son Lucius have begged for the lives of Martius and Quintus, but the two are found guilty and are marched off to execution. Aaron enters, and falsely tells Titus, Lucius, and Marcus that the emperor will spare (risparmiare) the prisoners if one of the three sacrifices a hand. Each demands the right to do so, but it is Titus who has Aaron cut off his (Titus') hand and take it to the emperor. In return, a messenger brings Titus the heads of his sons and his own severed (tagliata) hand. Desperate for revenge, Titus orders Lucius to flee (abbandonare) Rome and raise an army among their former enemy, the Goths.
Later, Titus' grandson (Lucius' son), who has been helping Titus read to Lavinia, complains that she will not leave his book alone. In the book, she indicates to Titus and Marcus the story of Philomela, in which a similarly mute victim "wrote" the name of her wrongdoer (malfattori). Marcus gives her a stick to hold with her mouth and stumps (moncherini) and she writes the names of her attackers in the dirt. Titus vows revenge. Feigning madness, he ties written prayers for justice to arrows and commands his kinsmen to aim them at the sky. Marcus directs the arrows to land inside the palace of Saturninus, who is enraged by this. He confronts the Andronici and orders the execution of a Clown who had delivered a further supplication from Titus.
Tamora delivers a mixed-race child, and the nurse can tell it must have been fathered by Aaron. Aaron kills the nurse and flees with the baby to save it from the Emperor's inevitable wrath (collera). Later, Lucius, marching on Rome with an army, captures Aaron and threatens to hang the infant. To save the baby, Aaron reveals the entire plot to Lucius, relishing his retelling of every murder, rape, and dismemberment.
Tamora, convinced of Titus' madness, approaches him along with her two sons, dressed as the spirits of Revenge, Murder, and Rape. She tells Titus that she (as a supernatural spirit) will grant him revenge if he will convince Lucius to stop attacking Rome. Titus agrees, sending Marcus to invite Lucius to a feast. "Revenge" (Tamora) offers to invite the Emperor and Tamora, and is about to leave, but Titus insists that "Rape" and "Murder" (Chiron and Demetrius) stay with him. She agrees. When she is gone Titus' servants bind (legano) Chiron and Demetrius, and Titus cuts their throats, while Lavinia holds a basin in her stumps to catch their blood. He plans to cook them into a pie for their mother. This is the same revenge Procne took for the rape of her sister Philomela.
The next day, during the feast at his house, Titus asks Saturninus whether a father should kill his daughter if she has been raped. When the Emperor agrees, Titus then kills Lavinia and tells Saturninus what Tamora's sons had done. When the Emperor asks for Chiron and Demetrius, Titus reveals that they were in the pie Tamora has just been enjoying, and then kills Tamora. Saturninus kills Titus just as Lucius arrives, and Lucius kills Saturninus to avenge his father's death.
Lucius tells his family's story to the people and is proclaimed Emperor. He orders that Saturninus be given a proper burial, that Tamora's body be thrown to the wild beasts, and that Aaron be buried chest-deep and left to die of thirst and starvation. Aaron, however, is unrepentant to the end, proclaiming:
"If one good Deed in all my life I did,I do repent it from my very Soule."
When...Most scholars date the play to the early 1590s. In his Arden edition, Jonathan Bate proposes that the play was written in late 1593, pointing out that on 24 January 1594 it was apparently listed as a new play in Philip Henslowe's diary. Another school of opinion has doubted the play's newness in 1594, given that the induction of Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (1614) seems to suggest that Titus Andronicus was then about 25 years old, which would date it to ca. 1589. The Norton/Sackville play Gorboduc, originally a play from the 1560's, was published again in 1590. Its many similarities with Titus Andronicus favor an earlier date for the composition of Titus Andronicus because plays were not published unless there was some interest in them, and therefore there may have been a revival of Gorboduc just prior to 1590. Shakespeare may have acted in a performance of Gorboduc just prior to 1590 or read it in or just after 1590.
The play was published in three separate quarto editions prior to the First Folio of 1623, which are referred to as Q1, Q2, and Q3 by Shakespeare scholars. The play was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on 6 February 1594, by the printer John Danter. Danter sold the rights to the booksellers Thomas Millington and Edward White; they issued the first quarto edition (Q1) later that year, with printing done by Danter. The title page is unusual in that it assigns the play to three different companies of actors—Pembroke's Men, Derby's Men, and Sussex's Men. White published Q2 in 1600 (printed by James Roberts), and Q3 in 1611 (printed by Edward Allde). The First Folio text (1623) was printed from Q3 with an additional scene, III, ii.
None of the three quarto editions name the author (as was normal in the publication of playtexts in the early 1590s). However, Francis Meres lists the play as one of Shakespeare's tragedies in a publication of 1598, and the editors of the First Folio included it among his works. Despite this, Shakespeare's full authorship has been doubted. In the introduction to his 1678 adaptation of the play (printed nine years later, in 1687), Edward Ravenscroft states: "I have been told by some anciently conversant with the Stage, that it was not Originally his, but brought by a private Author to be Acted, and he only gave some Master-touches to one or two Principal Parts or Characters". There are problems with Ravenscroft's statement: the old men "conversant with the Stage" could not have been more than children whenTitus was written, and Ravenscroft may be biased, since he uses the story to justify his alterations of Shakespeare's play. However, the story has been used to bolster arguments that another author was partly responsible.
Although Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, it is hard to say exactly how early it is. The anonymous play A Knack to Know a Knave, acted in 1592, alludes to Titus and the Goths, which clearly indicates Shakespeare's play, since other versions of the Titus story involve Moors, not Goths.
Philip Henslowe's diary records performances of a Titus and Vespasian in 1592–93, and some critics have identified this with Shakespeare's play.
In January and February of 1594, Sussex's Men gave three performances of Titus Andronicus; two more performances followed in June of the same year, at the Newington Butts theatre, by either the Admiral's Men or the Lord Chamberlain's Men. A private performance occurred in 1596 at Sir John Harington's house in Rutland.
In the Restoration, the play was performed in 1678 at Drury Lane, in an adaptation by Edward Ravenscroft. The eighteenth-century actor James Quin considered Aaron, the villain in Titus, one of his favourite roles.
In 2005 the play was staged at Shakespeare's Globe in London.