Act 5, scene 3
Lucius, Marcus, and the Goths enter, with Aaron as prisoner. Lucius tells his uncle, Titus, to take Aaron into custody until he can be brought to the empress to testify about their crimes. The Goths exit with Aaron.
Saturnius and Tamora enter, with Aemilius, tribunes, and others. Saturnius and Lucius immediately start to quarrel, but Marcus tells them to stop because the feast is ready, which Titus has put on for peace and reconciliation.
Titus enters dressed as a chef and puts the dishes on the table. Lavinia also enters, with a veil over her face. After an exchange of pleasantries, Titus asks Saturnius about a story that appears in Roman literature: was Virginius correct to kill his daughter because she had been raped? Saturnius says he was, because the girl had been shamed and her presence kept renewing Virginius’s sorrow.
Titus takes that as a precedent and kills Lavinia. He says he did it to ease his sorrow. Tamara asks why he killed her, and Titus names Chiron and Demetrius and describes what they did to her. Saturnius asks that they be sent for. Titus says they are already there, baked in the pie, which Tamora has just eaten. He kills Tamora. Saturnius kills Titus. Lucius kills Saturnius.
Marcus is left to become a peacemaker for Rome. He allows Lucius to speak and tell the tale. Lucius tells of the crimes of Chiron and Demetrius, and of his own banishment. He says that although he sought help from Rome’s enemies he had Rome’s best interests at heart.
Marcus takes up the story. He says the black child is Tamora’s by Aaron, who plotted these crimes. He asks the assembled Romans to judge whether Titus and his family have done right or wrong. He will accept their verdict, even if it should mean the end of him and Lucius.
Aemilius and others hail Lucius as their emperor. Marcus commands the attendants to go to Titus’s house and execute Aaron.
Lucius thanks the Romans for accepting him. He promises to heal Rome’s wounds. He embraces Marcus and tells young Lucius that his grandfather Titus loved him. Lucius grieves for the death of his grandfather.
Aemilius reenters with Aaron. Lucius decrees that he be buried in earth up to his chest and starved. Anyone who tries to feed him will be executed. Aaron refuses to repent his deeds, and says he wishes he had done ten thousand even worse ones. The only thing he repents is it he ever did one good deed.
Lucius orders the body of Saturnius to be taken and buried in the family tomb. Titus and Lavinia will be buried in the Andronicus vault. Tamora is to be given no funeral. Her body is to be thrown to the beasts and birds to eat.
This macabre, over-the-top climactic scene is not entirely Shakespeare’s own invention, at least not in its gruesome details. He took as his inspiration the story of Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which he had alluded to earlier in the play. Philomela is raped and manages to tell her story to her sister Progne, who kills her son, who was fathered by her husband, Tereus the rapist. Progne then cooks the corpse and serves it as a meal to Tereus. There is another mythological parallel that Shakespeare would have been aware of, in Greek mythology. In revenge for his wife’s act of adultery with Thyestes, Atreus kills Thyestes sons and cooks them, serving them to Thyestes.
In tragedies, the hero always dies, as does Titus here. The great tragic heroesin Shakespeare’s plays go through great suffering but learn from their experience. They get insight into themselves. But Titus does not seem to be in this category. He shows no growth of character. He endures great suffering, certainly, but at the end he does not seem to have learned any great truth about himself or about life. He just wants revenge. This is one of the reasons that Titus Andronicus is not rated highly when compared to other tragedies by Shakespeare.
However, in the return of Lucius and his ascension to emperor, the ending of the play is not untypical of Shakespeare’s tragedies. The evil is purged, and justice and order are restored. Lucius gives every impression that he will become a wise ruler.