Alone during the hunt, Aaron buries a bag of gold under a tree. Tamora arrives and suggests she and Aaron make love. Aaron says instead that he is busy with carrying out revenge. He tells her that her sons will rape Lavinia and kill Bassianus. He gives Tamora a letter to show to Saturninus.
Bassianus and Lavinia come upon Aaron and Tamora, discovering that the two are lovers. Aaron leaves to find Tamora’s sons. Bassianus teases Tamora, asking sarcastically whether he’s stumbled upon Diana (the Roman god of hunting) in the wilderness. Tamora replies that if she’s Diana, he would be Actaeon. (In Greek myth, Actaeon found Diana bathing in the wild; she turned him into a deer and he was then killed by his own hunting dogs.) Lavinia and Bassianus chastise Tamora for sleeping with Aaron and say that they will tell Saturninus about what they’ve seen.
The myth of Actaeon encapsulates the reversal in hunting that will occur here, as the hunters (in this case Bassianus, Lavinia, and the Andronicus family) are about to become hunted themselves. Again, this reversal encapsulates how violence and revenge operate in the play, as avengers have vengeance taken upon them and killers are themselves killed.
Chiron and Demetrius arrive and Tamora tells them that Lavinia and Bassianus have tricked her to follow them into the wilderness and have threatened to tie her up and leave her to die in a pit. She asks her sons to avenge her and they both stab Bassianus, killing him. Lavinia calls Tamora “barbarous” for her cruelty. Tamora offers to kill Lavinia herself, but her sons stop her, wanting to rape her first. Lavinia pleads with them to pity her, but they do not, as Tamora reminds them of how Titus killed their brother. Lavinia then begs for a quick death and asks to be spared rape, but Tamora refuses this, too. Chiron and Demetrius throw Bassianus’ body into a pit and carry off Lavinia.
As Bassianus is stabbed to death in front of Lavinia and his body is disposed of on-stage (as opposed to, for example, Alarbus, who is killed off-stage), Shakespeare heightens the spectacle of brutal violence that his audience would have expected in a revenge tragedy. Lavinia accuses Tamora of being barbarous, thereby distancing herself as a Roman from such cruelty. However, over the course of the play, Romans like Titus act just as barbarously as the supposed barbarians.
Aaron enters, leading two of Titus’ sons (Martius and Quintus) and telling them that he has seen a panther trapped in a pit. As it is dark and difficult to see clearly, Martius falls into the pit. Aaron goes to find Saturninus. Martius sees Bassianus’ dead body in the pit. Quintus attempts to help him get out of the pit, but falls in instead. Aaron returns with Saturninus. Saturninus asks who is in the hole and Martius answers him. He tells Saturninus that Bassianus is dead. Tamora, Titus, and Lucius arrive. Tamora feigns ignorance about Bassianus’ death and gives Saturninus the letter that Aaron has given her.
As Tamora and Aaron’s revenge plot begins to take shape, Martius and Quintus fall prey to a reversal similar to that of Bassianus and Lavinia. They fall unaware into the dark pit, just as Titus progresses unwittingly toward his own demise at the hands of Tamora (and Tamora towards hers at the hands of Titus).
Saturninus reads the letter, which describes a plan to kill Bassianus in return for payment in the form of gold hidden under a nearby tree. Aaron unearths the gold. Saturninus believes that Titus’ sons are behind the plot, and since they are down in the pit with the deceased Bassianus, they appear to be guilty. Saturninus orders for them to be taken to prison. Titus begs that they be bailed out from prison on his word and promises that they will stand trial for Bassianus’ murder. But Saturninus refuses, as he is utterly convinced of the sons’ guilt. Tamora tells Titus that she will appeal to Saturninus on behalf of Titus’ sons.
The speed with which Saturninus jumps to his conclusion that Titus’ sons are guilty suggests the capriciousness of justice in Rome: Saturninus can have Titus’ sons carried off to be executed based on nothing more than his opinion as emperor, despite Titus’ call for a trial to discover what really happened.