Titus Andronicus is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1588 and 1593, probably in collaboration with George Peele. It is thought to be Shakespeare's first tragedy and is often seen as his attempt to emulate the violent and bloody revenge plays of his contemporaries, which were extremely popular with audiences throughout the 16th century.
The play is set during the latter days of the Roman Empire and tells the fictional story of Titus, a general in the Roman army, who is engaged in a cycle of revenge with Tamora, Queen of the Goths. It is Shakespeare's bloodiest and most violent work, and traditionally was one of his least respected plays; although it was extremely popular in its day, by the later 17th century it had fallen out of favour. In the Victorian era, it was disapproved of primarily because of what was considered to be a distasteful use of graphic violence, but from around the middle of the 20th century its reputation began to improve.
The play begins shortly after the death of the Roman emperor, with his two sons, Saturninus and Bassianus, squabbling over who will succeed him. Their conflict seems set to boil over into violence until a tribune, Marcus Andronicus, announces that the people's choice for the new emperor is Marcus's brother, Titus, who will shortly return to Rome from a victorious ten-year campaign against the Goths. Titus subsequently arrives to much fanfare, bearing with him as prisoners the Queen of the Goths (Tamora), her three sons (Alarbus, Chiron, and Demetrius), and Aaron the Moor (her secret lover). Despite Tamora's desperate pleas, Titus sacrifices her eldest son, Alarbus, to avenge the deaths of his own sons during the war. Distraught, Tamora and her two surviving sons vow to obtain revenge on Titus and his family.
Meanwhile, Titus refuses the offer of the throne, arguing that he is not fit to rule and instead supporting the claim of Saturninus, who then is duly elected. Saturninus tells Titus that for his first act as emperor, he will marry Titus's daughter Lavinia. Titus agrees, although Lavinia is already betrothed to Saturninus's brother, Bassianus, who refuses to give her up. Titus's sons tell Titus that Bassianus is in the right under Roman law, but Titus refuses to listen, accusing them all of treason. A scuffle breaks out, during which Titus kills his own son, Mutius. Saturninus then denounces the Andronici family for their effrontery and shocks Titus by marrying Tamora. Putting into motion her plan for revenge, Tamora advises Saturninus to pardon Bassianus and the Andronici family, which he reluctantly does.
During a royal hunt the following day, Aaron persuades Demetrius and Chiron to kill Bassianus, so they may rape Lavinia. They do so, throwing Bassianus's body into a pit and dragging Lavinia deep into the forest before violently raping her. To keep her from revealing what has happened, they cut out her tongue and cut off her hands. Meanwhile, Aaron writes a forged letter, which frames Titus's sons Martius and Quintus for the murder of Bassianus. Horrified at the death of his brother, Saturninus arrests Martius and Quintus, and sentences them to death.
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