Titus Andronicus is the earliest tragedy and the earliest Roman play attributed to Shakespeare. Its tragic hero Titus acts in many ways as the model Roman, even though he makes a series of tragic errors. As the play begins, his loyalty to the Roman state is absolute, and he has given evidence of this civic virtue in his triumphs on the battlefield and in his willingness to spend his own blood in the service of extending and preserving the empire. He has led twenty-one of his twenty-five sons to death in Rome’s wars. In having done so, Titus may seem to lack a feature of Roman manhood that was also highly valued, namely, patriarchal devotion to his family. This impression appears confirmed when early in the play Titus stabs to death one of his few surviving sons, who, in Titus’s judgment, is showing disloyalty to Rome by resisting the desire of its newly crowned emperor.
Yet before the play is half over, Titus has come to appreciate that under the sway of the new emperor Saturninus and his bride Tamora, Rome has become “a wilderness of tigers” and that “tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey / But me and mine.” He is brought to this recognition by the death sentence imposed on two of his three remaining sons, a sentence that teaches him that the Roman tribunes are “more hard than stones.” Almost immediately he is faced with the terrible rape and mutilation suffered by his only daughter. With his realization that justice has fled from Rome and that his and his family’s sacrifices are now as nothing, Titus turns his fierce loyalty away from the state and toward his family alone. Many scenes in the latter half of the play show him in the company of his brother, daughter, and grandson, a foursome totally devoted to each other and joined in mutual compassion for the family’s horrible suffering.
The transference of Titus’s emotions from state to family is oddly mirrored in the transformation of another of the play’s chief characters, Aaron the Moor. Beginning the play as its magnificent villain and the secret lover of the new empress of Rome, Tamora, Aaron seems almost to embody the near-comic figure of the Vice from drama before Shakespeare. Like the Vice, who was closely modeled on the devil of Christian theology, Aaron is nearly superhumanly inventive and resourceful in devising plots to destroy others, and, like the Vice, he takes huge delight in the destruction. Yet once the Empress, to her horror, bears him a child who is the image of himself, he turns his boundless energy and resourcefulness to the preservation of the baby, for whose sake he is ready to endure any suffering. Aaron does not lose his thirst for perpetrating evil, but he strangely combines his consummate villainy with great tenderness to his own little family—a tenderness that also comes to characterize Titus before the play reaches its terrifying conclusion.