Titus Andronicus starts off with a bang and gives us life, death, politics, and betrayal all in one big scene before the Capitol in Rome. The play opens with Saturninus and Bassianus, sons to the recently deceased emperor, arguing over who gets the throne now. Marcus Andronicus, brother to the titular Andronicus, says to wait for his brother to make the decision because he is a true patriot and has spent his whole life fighting for Rome. Shortly thereafter, Titus returns to the seat of the empire from a campaign against the Goths. Unlike some of the more innocent (or at least less deserving) tragic characters we are familiar with from Shakespeare’s plays, it seems that Titus Andronicus might be coming home to Rome to reap what he has sown in a long life of rape and pillage. He has the queen of the Goths, Tamora, as a prisoner.
Titus comes home bearing his dead son’s coffin to be laid to rest in the family vault. His son was one of twenty-five that have died in battle so far. Incidentally, there are at least four more still living and a daughter as well. I’m no mathemagician, but that seems suspiciously close to thirty children. Thirty! At any rate, Titus is angry with the Goths for killing his son, so he has his eldest living son, Lucius, take Tamora’s eldest son and chop of his limbs and set him on fire, as one does in these situations. Unsurprisingly, Tamora is not happy with this turn of events and her remaining sons caution her to wait for her opportunity and get her revenge on the old soldier.
Saturninus and Bassianus arrive to hear who Titus would have as emperor. He doesn’t answer right away and Saturninus escalates quickly, threatening violence on all who oppose his claim. Titus tells him to take a chill pill and that he chooses Saturninus. The crown prince calms down and tells Titus as reward for his service, he will marry Titus’ daughter Lavinia. Titus says cool. Then he gives Saturninus Tamora as some sort of twisted wedding present. Saturninus looks over at Lavinia and says are you cool with me having a sex slave? and Lavinia says yeah, man, whatever my lord wants is good by me because I’m an easygoing, groovy lady. Bassianus pops up at this point and says that actually, Lavinia is going to be his wife and he’s going to elope with her right now. Titus says no way, but his brother and sons all oppose him. He ends up stabbing his son Mutius in the struggle and disowns the rest of his sons for dishonoring him. To add insult to injury, Saturninus is mad at Titus for playing him for a fool. He says he’ll just go off and marry his new slave, Tamora.
Titus bickers with his sons a bit, but eventually softens enough to let Mutius be buried in the family crypt along with his twenty-five brothers who are already in there. For real, that’s a lot of kids. The newly married Bassianus and Saturninus come back and argue with each other for a bit before Tamora uses her new influence to get Saturninus to forgive Titus and his brother for whatever he thinks they did to him. He relents and the act ends with everyone in a rather uneasy truce.
I liked the start of this play. There is a whole lot of stuff going on even though the setup seems fairly straightforward. It seems clear to me that Tamora is going to be the ultimate architect of Titus’ woes in revenge for the brutal and rather offhanded murder of her son. It seems fitting to me that Titus is a bit of a dick, so watching him suffer is not the worst thing in the world. However, to truly reach those tragic heights (or lows?), the audience usually needs to sympathize with the tragic character. I guess this could feel more like a comedy if I don’t start liking Titus before he gets his due. No matter what happens in the plot, this play is funnier than The Comedy of Errors.