As a group of judges and tribunes lead Quintus and Martius off to be executed, Titus begs for their pity. He falls to the ground, still talking to the tribunes, who leave with Quintus and Martius. Lucius enters and tells Titus that the tribunes are gone. Titus continues to plead, saying that it doesn’t matter, since the tribunes wouldn’t listen to him anyway. He laments his children’s impending executions, addressing his weeping to stones on the ground, which he says are more sympathetic than the cold tribunes.
As Titus continues to lament to no audience in particular, he implicitly asserts that there is some value in such an outpouring of emotion, whereas Lucius would see such grieving and pleading only in practical terms, as a way of trying to persuade the judges and tribunes to take pity.
Lucius tells Titus that he is going to rescue Quintus and Martius, but Titus says that they are better off dead, since Rome is now “a wilderness of tigers.” Marcus enters with Lavinia and Titus sees what has been done to her. Titus asks Lavinia to tell him who has hurt her. He says that he thought his grief was at its limit, but now it goes over its limits, like the Nile flooding and overflowing its banks. Lucius also asks Lavinia to speak, but Marcus tells them both that her tongue has been cut out.
Titus’ comment that Rome—the civilized capital of the largest empire in the Western world—is now a wilderness emphasizes the blurring of the distinction between Romans and barbarians and the dissolution of Rome. He also continues to grieve, saying that his pain has surpassed any limit he once thought existed.
Titus says that whoever has done this to Lavinia has hurt him more than if he had killed him. Lavinia weeps when Titus mentions Quintus and Martius and Marcus wonders whether it is because she knows that they killed her husband Bassianus or because she knows that they are wrongfully accused. Titus continues to lament, and Lucius tells him to “cease your tears,” because he is upsetting Lavinia. Marcus offers Titus a handkerchief to dry his eyes, but Titus says, “Thy napkin cannot drink a tear of mine, / For thou, poor man, hast drowned it with thine own.”
Titus values his children so much that he sees Lavinia’s pain as more hurtful than his own death. Titus continues to indulge in what Lucius and Marcus see as excessive mourning. He again suggests that his grief surpasses its normal limits (with Marcus and him shedding more tears than a handkerchief can absorb).
Aaron enters and tells Titus that Saturninus will allow Titus’ sons to be ransomed if Titus, Marcus, or Lucius will cut off one of their hands. Titus is eager to do it, but Lucius and Marcus volunteer as well, and the three argue over who will cut off a hand. Titus pretends to concede and Lucius and Marcus leave to find an axe to use, both eager to sacrifice a hand. After they leave, Titus tells Aaron to cut off his hand and he does. Lucius and Marcus return and Aaron reveals that he has tricked Titus: in return for Titus’ hand, he will send not Titus’ sons to him, but rather their heads.
As Aaron’s cruelty escalates, Titus shows his willingness to sacrifice his own body for the sake of his sons. Shakespeare’s gruesome display of violence continues with Titus having his hand cut off on-stage.
Aaron leaves and Titus cries out in pain, saying that his passionate grief is “bottomless.” Marcus advises Titus, “let reason govern thy lament,” but Titus replies that since the cruelties done to him are without reason, so will his grief be without reasonable limits. A messenger from the emperor brings Titus the heads of Quintus and Martius, as well as Titus’ own hand. At this, Marcus stops trying to restrain Titus’ grieving.
Overwhelmed by pain, Titus begins to laugh. Marcus asks why he laughs, and Titus responds that he has no more tears to shed and that sorrow is useless. Instead, he will seek out revenge. He sends Lucius to go to the Goths and raise an army to challenge Saturninus. Lucius bids farewell to Rome, Lavinia, and his father, calling Titus “the woefull’st man that ever lived in Rome.”
Titus seems to have exhausted the possibilities of grief. He has gone so far in suffering that all he can do now is laugh. Having left behind mourning as a response to his suffering, he now turns to revenge, through which he can achieve more practical goals (but which will ultimately cause him even more suffering).