As the play opens, Saturninus and Bassianus, the two sons of the recently deceased emperor of Rome, are arguing over who should rightfully become the next emperor. They appeal to the people of Rome. Saturninus claims that it is his right, as the previous emperor’s oldest son, while Bassianus appeals to the Roman people to make their own decision and choose him as emperor because of his virtue.
The dispute over who will be the next emperor reveals that Rome is unstable and lacks a clear leader. Saturninus’ claim that he should be emperor since he is the former emperor’s oldest son shows the importance in this Roman society of lineage, of establishing a line of male children as heirs and being able to claim a powerful heritage through one’s father.
The Roman tribune (a government official appointed to protect the common people) Marcus Andronicus intervenes, telling both sons that the Roman people have instead chosen Marcus’ brother, Titus Andronicus, as emperor, because of his heroic deeds as a general. Marcus announces that Titus is just now returning to Rome from a military campaign against the Gauls, where 21 of his 25 sons died in battle. Bassianus and Saturninus concede and the three men exit.
Marcus reveals that the Roman people support Titus as emperor, further demonstrating the instability of Rome’s political system. The mention of war is the first instance of violence in the play. While we do not see the war, its violence and the deaths of Titus’ children lead directly to the chain of violence and revenge that continues throughout the entire play.
A military captain heralds the arrival of Titus, who enters and salutes Rome, then orders for his deceased sons to be buried in his family’s tomb according to custom. Titus brings with him five prisoners: Tamora, the queen of the Goths; her three sons (Alarbus, Demetrius, and Chiron); and Aaron, a Moor (someone of African descent). Titus’ son Lucius suggests that one of Tamora’s sons be killed as retribution for the deaths of Titus’ sons. Tamora protests and begs Titus not to kill her child, but Titus says that Tamora’s son is owed to him as a sacrifice since the Goths killed his children. Titus’ remaining sons leave with Alarbus, to go and kill him.
Titus ensures that his sons are properly buried, showing the importance of mourning the dead in the appropriate way. Titus's murder of Alarbus is the first act of revenge in the play, which will prompt Tamora to carry out her own revenge later. Tamora’s plea shows how much she values her children, just like Titus, though Titus does not respect her attachment to her own son. Titus thinks that the death of Alarbus is owed to him as recompense for his own losses, and sees it as a justifiable act.
Tamora and Chiron cry out in grief and accuse the Romans of being barbarous. Demetrius, though, calms them both and advises Tamora to seek an opportunity for revenge upon Titus. Titus’s sons re-enter with bloody swords, announcing the death of Alarbus. Titus then addresses his deceased, buried children, honoring the dead in their tomb. Titus’ daughter Lavinia enters and kneels at the tomb in mourning. Titus is happy to see his daughter again.
The Romans see themselves as superior to and more civilized than barbarians, but as Tamora and Chiron’s accusation hints, the Romans can be just as barbaric as any barbarian. Demetrius encourages Tamora to respond to Alarbus’ death by plotting revenge, rather than sinking into grief. Titus and Lavinia continue to pay their respects to the dead.
Marcus enters with a white robe and presents it to Titus as a token of the citizens’ election of him as emperor. Titus declines (he says he is too old and weak) and Saturninus responds by reasserting his claim to the throne. Bassianus asks for Titus to support him as emperor. Titus asks the Roman people to allow him to decide the next emperor and the tribunes approve on behalf of the citizens. Titus chooses Saturninus as emperor, since he is the former emperor’s oldest son.
There continues to be disagreement over who the next emperor will be, until Titus concedes the throne to Saturninus. Marcus’ gift of a white robe to Titus suggests that Titus is unstained and pure, though Titus has already had Alarbus killed. The continued violence and bloodshed of the play will further call into question this notion of Titus as morally pure, innocent, and just.
As a gesture of thanks to Titus, Saturninus declares that he will take Lavinia as his wife. Titus is pleased with this, and presents his remaining prisoners to Saturninus as a present to the new emperor. Saturninus declares the prisoners freed and leaves along with his tribunes and senators.
Titus values Lavinia, as he does his sons, but she is in a sense used here like a bargaining chip, an object exchanged between Titus and Saturninus to repay a favor (much like the prisoners Titus gives to Saturninus).
Bassianus tells Titus that Lavinia was already betrothed to him and takes Lavinia by the arm. Marcus and Lucius support Bassianus's claim to Lavinia, and Titus responds by calling them traitors. Titus then calls for Saturninus to alert him and Saturninus returns. Titus’ son Mutius helps Titus’ other sons and Bassianus flee with Lavinia. Titus tries to pursue, but is prevented by Mutius, who will not let him pass. Titus angrily kills Mutius. Lucius then returns and tells Titus that he has wrongfully killed his own son. Titus replies that he considers no one who would so dishonor him as his son.
For someone who has just lost 21 sons, Titus is remarkably quick to kill his own son Mutius, resorting to violence almost immediately in this dispute. While Titus values his children, he places his allegiance to Rome and the emperor—what he sees as his honor—ahead of the lives of the individuals in his own family.
Angry that Lavinia has been taken from him, Saturninus says that he no longer trusts the Andronicus family and will not have Lavinia as his wife. Instead, Saturninus asks Tamora to be his wife and the “Emperess of Rome.” Tamora accepts the offer and everyone but Titus leaves.
The union of Saturninus and Tamora further blurs the supposed distinction between Romans and Barbarians.
Marcus and Titus’ sons return and Marcus chastises Titus for killing Mutius. Titus again claims that Mutius was “no son of mine.” Lucius asks for Mutius to be buried in the Andronicus family tomb, but Titus refuses. Marcus and Titus’ sons attempt to convince Titus to allow Mutius the customary honor of being laid to rest in the family tomb. Titus grudgingly allows it, but does not join the others in mourning him.
Saturninus enters with Tamora, her sons, and Aaron, while Bassianus enters with Lavinia. Saturninus tells Bassianus that he can have Lavinia and calls him traitorous, telling him that he and his supporters will “repent this rape.” (“Rape” here means a forcible seizure or abduction.) Bassianus maintains that Lavinia was rightfully his, and pleads on behalf of Titus, telling Saturninus that Titus killed his own son out of respect for him.
Tamora convinces Saturninus not to seek revenge, but rather to forgive Titus. However, she secretly whispers to Saturninus that this mercy is only a public ruse. She says that she will plot revenge upon Titus for the killing of her son. Speaking aloud, Tamora continues to lie to Titus, telling him, “This day all quarrels die.” Marcus, Lavinia, and Titus’ sons ask for Saturninus’ pardon. Saturninus publicly forgives them. Titus invites Saturninus to go on a hunt with him the next day as a gesture of reconciliation and Saturninus accepts the invitation.