As the play begins, the Roman general Titus Andronicus returns to Rome from a campaign against the Goths, bringing with him several prisoners: Tamora, queen of the Goths, her sons, and Aaron the Moor. Because the emperor of Rome has recently died, there is some dispute over who will be the next emperor. The former emperor’s two sons, Saturninus and Bassianus, argue over the throne, while the Roman people support Titus as the next emperor. Titus declines due to his age and, speaking for the people of Rome, proclaims Saturninus as emperor. As revenge for the deaths of many of his children during the war with the Goths, Titus has Tamora’s oldest son, Alarbus, executed. As emperor, Saturninus announces that he will take Titus’ daughter Lavinia as his wife. Bassianus, though, says that she was betrothed to him. Titus’ sons and his brother Marcus side with Bassianus, preventing Saturninus from marrying Lavinia. Titus is angry that his sons are disobeying the emperor, and he kills his son Mutius when he stands in Titus’ way. Angry with the Andronicus family, Saturninus takes Tamora as his wife instead of Lavinia. Tamora encourages Saturninus to forgive Titus and his family, but whispers to him that this is only a façade and that she is plotting revenge upon Titus. Titus invites Saturninus and Tamora to join him and his family on a hunt, as a gesture of reconciliation.
Aaron, who is secretly Tamora’s lover, encourages Tamora’s sons Demetrius and Chiron to rape Lavinia. He and Tamora plot their revenge. During the hunt, Lavinia and Bassianus find Tamora and Aaron and discover that they are lovers. Demetrius and Chiron then kill Bassianus and carry off Lavinia. Aaron forges a letter that makes it look as if Titus’ sons Quintus and Martius killed Bassianus and Saturninus believes it. He orders Quintus and Martius to be taken away as prisoners and executed. Marcus finds Lavinia after she has been raped and has had her hands and tongue cut off by Demetrius and Chiron, but because she can not communicate no one knows who has done this to her.
Titus begs for his sons to be bailed out from jail and asks for them to stand trial for the murder of Bassianus. Aaron tells Titus that the emperor will allow Quintus and Martius to be ransomed if Titus will send one of his own hands. Titus eagerly agrees and cuts off one of his hands. Aaron, however, sends Titus not his sons, but their heads. Marcus then brings Lavinia to Titus, who sees her mutilation and suffering. He is so outraged that he vows revenge and tells his son Lucius to go raise an army of Goths to march on Rome. While Lucius does this, Titus has a meal with Marcus, Young Lucius (Lucius’ son), and Lavinia. When Marcus kills a fly, Titus becomes upset. But when Marcus tells him that the fly was black like Aaron, Titus laughs in delight and stabs at the fly repeatedly.
Unable to speak, Lavinia attempts to reveal what has happened to her by pointing to a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this epic poem, there is the story of Philomela, who was raped and had her tongue cut out by the wicked Tereus. She points to this part of the story, and Titus realizes that she has been raped. He gives her a staff with which she can write in the dirt (guiding it with her mouth) and she writes the names of Demetrius and Chiron. Titus plans revenge on Tamora and her sons. Meanwhile, Tamora gives birth to Aaron’s son, whose dark skin threatens to reveal that Aaron and Tamora are lovers. Aaron arranges for a white baby to take the child’s place at court and takes his own child to the Goths, where he will try to have it raised safely.
Titus and his family fire arrows with messages to the gods written on them, as a way of praying to the gods for the return of the personified deity Justice. Some of the arrows land in the royal court. Titus sends a passerby to bear a message from him to Saturninus. Having found some of the arrows from the Andronicus family, Saturninus is upset. He kills the messenger who brings the letter from Titus. Saturninus hears that Lucius is leading an army of Goths and is worried, since the Roman people support Lucius. He sends a message asking for a meeting between Titus, Lucius, and him, and Tamora goes to try to persuade Titus into getting Lucius to stop his attack on Rome.
Aaron is captured by one of Lucius’ Goths. Lucius plans to kill Aaron and his child, but spares the child in return for information. Aaron tells him about all that he, Tamora, Demetrius, and Chiron have done. A messenger from Saturninus arrives, telling Lucius of the proposed meeting with Saturninus, and Lucius agrees to the meeting.
Tamora, meanwhile, goes to Titus dressed as the personification of Revenge, along with her sons (dressed as Revenge’s followers, Rape and Murder). She thinks that Titus has gone mad and is fooled by her disguise, but Titus actually recognizes her and her children. She tells Titus to invite Lucius to a feast and says that she will bring Tamora and her sons to Titus for him to exact revenge. Titus agrees, but asks that she leave “Murder” and “Rape” (Demetrius and Chiron) with him. Tamora leaves, and Titus has her sons killed. He gathers their blood and grinds up their bones, using their remains to make pies that he plans to serve to Tamora.
At the feast, Titus serves the pies to Tamora and Saturninus. He reveals that he knows who raped Lavinia, that Tamora is now eating her own sons, and kills Lavinia because she has been dishonored. He then kills Tamora. Saturninus responds by killing Titus, and Lucius avenges his father by killing Saturninus. Marcus and Lucius then speak to the Roman public, telling them about everything that Aaron and Tamora have done and promising that they will repair and restore Rome. Lucius is made emperor, and he orders for Aaron to be killed. Marcus, Lucius, and Young Lucius mourn the deceased Titus and arrange for his proper burial.