Act 3, scene 1
Titus’s two sons are led to execution. Titus pleads before the judges and senators, asking them to be merciful to his sons. He says they are not as corrupt as they have been judged to be. Continuing his appeal he lies down on the ground as the judges pass him, weeping and continuing to ask that his sons be spared the death sentence.
Lucius enters, with his sword drawn. He tells his father that the tribunes (judges and officials) have gone. No one can hear him or listen to him. Lucius tells his father that he tried to rescue his brothers but failed, and as a result he has been banished from Rome. Titus tells him he is lucky, since Rome is nothing more than a “wilderness of tigers” and he and his family are the tigers’ prey.
Marcus enters with Lavinia. Titus says his grief was at its height before he saw her, but now it is even greater. He asks for a sword so he can chop off his own hands, which have done service to Rome and been held up in prayer, but all has been in vain. Lucius asks who attacked Lavinia, but Marcus does not know. Titus laments all his misfortunes: his sons condemned to death, another son banished, his brother weeping at his ill fortune, and his daughter mutilated. He refuses to believe that his sons are guilty of the murder of Bassianus. He asks Lavinia to give him some sign to show how he might help her. Lucius tells his father to stop weeping because it only causes Lavinia to weep, seeing his distress.
Aaron enters. He says that if Titus, Marcus, or Lucius chops off a hand and sends it to the emperor, Titus’s sons will be spared and sent to him. Titus is willing to cut off his hand and ask Aaron to help. But Lucius chimes in, saying it should be his hand that is cut off. Then Marcus says, no, it should be his hand. Aaron tells them to hurry up and decide. The three men argue again, each insisting that his own hand should be cut off. Finally, Titus agrees to spare his own hand and tells the others to agree amongst themselves who is to forfeit the hand. Marcus and Lucius exit to get an axe. While they are gone, Titus enlists the help of Aaron, who cuts off Titus’s hand.
Lucius and Marcus return. Titus gives his severed hand to Aaron, telling him to convey it to the emperor. Aaron takes it and in an aside indicates that he knows very well that all Titus will get in return is his sons’ heads. He exits.
After Titus has again bemoaned his sorrow, a messenger enters, carrying two heads and a hand. The heads are those of his sons; the hand is his own. Marcus and Lucius express their horror and grief. Lavinia kisses Titus. Titus for a moment is so grief-struck that he can neither move or speak. Then he gives a hollow laugh and says he has no more tears to shed. He vows to seek revenge. He tells Lavinia to take his severed hand between her teeth and Lucius, since he is banished, to go. He tells him to go to the Goths and raise an army. All except Lucius exit. Lucius vows to return and avenge Lavinia and defeat Saturnius and Tamora.
This scene surpasses even the previous one for horrific events, featuring the severing of a hand and two severed heads, and all the while the mutilated Lavinia remains on-stage, watching, mute. It is as if the playwright has set out to provide the bloodiest spectacle he can imagine. For a modern audience it is hard not to see as comic the earnestness with which Lucius, Marcus, and Titus insist that it should be their hand that is forfeit. To avoid the trap of inappropriate laughter from the audience, the incident, grim though it might be in terms of what is being contemplated, is often deliberately played to raise a laugh.
It is horrific scenes such as this one that have led some commentators to suppose that Shakespeare is deliberately presenting a Grand Guignol piece that is designed for its shock value rather than with any serious purpose in mind. Grand Guignol is a French term. Its origins are in the Grand Guignoltheater in Paris that flourished during the first half of the twentieth century. The theater put on shows that featured horror, terror, and brutality, with some gory special effects. The term has since been applied to Elizabethan and Jacobean drama that emphasizes horror, such as TitusAndronicus and another revenge play, The White Devil, by John Webster, first performed in 1612. One has to remember that just as at the Grand Guignoltheater, Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences loved these spectacles. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, Titus Andronicus was one of his most popular plays, only later to fall into disrepute.
Act 3, scene 2
Titus, Marcus,Lavinia, and young Lucius (Lucius’s son and Titus’s grandson) enter. Titus wants to plot his revenge. He resolves to learn how to interpret what Lavinia thinks and feels by watching her closely.
Marcus kills a fly that was on a dish. Titus rebukes him, over his protests, for killing an innocent creature. But he changes his tune when Marcus likens the black fly to Aaron, who is black. Titus takes Marcus’s knife and strikes at the dead fly. Titus then says they should go, and he plans to take Lavinia home and read her some sad stories to cheer her up.
This scene emphasizes the grief of the Andronicus’ family, especially that of Titus, the tragic hero. It also provides a brief respite from violent acts and confrontations, with the fly serving as stand-in for the hated Goths, Tamora and Aaron.