The eldest son of Tamora, queen of the Goths, is sacrificed to the gods by her Roman conquerer, the general, Titus Andronicus. She vows revenge. So her two other sons rape Titus’s daughter Lavinia, and cut off her tongue so that she cannot say the names of those who raped her, and her hands so that she cannot write the names.
Titus, also mutilated–his hand is chopped off–finds out the truth, and in turn kills Tamora’s two sons and has them baked in a pie which he serves to her at a banquet. He then kills her and Lavinia, and is himself stabbed to death by Saturninus, the corrupt Emperor of Rome. Tamora’s Moorish lover Aaron, a central figure of the crimes, is sentenced to be buried alive. The final massacre leaves less than half the original characters still living.
In the first scene, Titus makes three disastrous choices which set the play’s great juggernaut of atrocities rolling. First, he decrees that Alarbus must be brutally sacrificed because hewing the limbs of the noblest captive is the traditional means of avenging an Andronici soldier. Despite Tamora’s heartbroken pleading, Titus allows his bloodthirsty sons to dismember Alarbus.
Second, Titus overlooks the merits of Bassianus and chooses the late emperor’s elder son Saturninus as emperor. Titus certainly should have known him as being rude, violent, self-centered, and ungrateful.
Finally, Titus gives Lavinia to Saturninus, even though everyone knows she is promised to Bassianus, and when the Andronici brothers help Bassianus seize Lavinia back, Titus kills his own son Mutius. This sets in motion two forms of atrocity: the casual near-annihilation of the Andronici, and the parent-against-child violence which culminates in Tamora’s inadvertent cannibalism.
Thus Titus is himself responsible for setting in motion the events that will overwhelm him. His family members are the first to practice vengeance, a fact that diminishes the sympathy they might later have been able to enjoy as victims and exiles.
Because the Andronici are too much like their enemies, the prevailing mood, as in most revenge plays, is more ironic than tragic. It is Titus himself who has taught Tamora to seek vengeance.