The brothers Saturninus and Bassianus are in contention for the Roman emperorship. Titus Andronicus, Rome's most honoured general, returns from wars against the Goths with their queen, Tamora, her sons and her lover, Aaron the Moor, as captives. Her eldest son is sacrificed by Titus; she vows revenge. Titus is nominated emperor by his brother Marcus, one of Rome's tribunes. This Titus declines, instead nominating Saturninus. To seal the bond of friendship, the new emperor offers to marry Titus' daughter Lavinia. She, however, is already pledged to Bassianus. Saturninus, by now infatuated with Tamora, makes her empress. Manipulated by Aaron, Tamora's sons, Chiron and Demetrius, avenge their mother by raping and mutilating Lavinia, and killing Bassianus. Aaron falsely implicates two of Titus' sons in this murder. In his turn Titus vows revenge and sends his surviving son Lucius to the Goths to raise an army. Titus achieves his revenge by killing Tamora's sons and serving them up to her at a banquet, and then killing her. He himself is killed by Saturninus and his death avenged by Lucius, who is made emperor.
De Vere's mother's half brother was Arthur Golding. Golding translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses is regarded as the most influential source for Shakespeare. Golding resided near the de Vere family in Essex in the 1550s and early 1560s. Golding was likely a tutor to de Vere, after his father died and de Vere was placed in the custody of William Cecil. In 1564, Golding dedicated his English translation of Justin's Abridgement of the Histories of Trogus Pompeius. The plot in the play calls for a copy of Ovid to be brought on stage. The book is introduced by BOY, who was of school age. He says: "'Tis Ovid's Metamorphoses." This was likely a reference to de Vere's maternal ties to Golding translation of Ovid's poem.
De Vere's wife Anne Cecil gave birth to a daughter while de Vere was traveling in Europe. De Vere questioned the paternity of Anne's daughter, and refused to live with his wife for a number years. However, in the end, he conceded he may have been wrong at least in his treatment and perhaps in questioning the paternity of Anne's daughter. Many of the de Vere's plays portray different theories about the circumstances surrounding the birth of Anne's daughter. This play (and the poem The Rape of Lucrece) hints at the scenario that Anne was raped.
In 1582, de Vere was dealing with the shame and scandal of his exile from the court of Queen Elizabeth. In the play, there is an important role for banishment. When Titus learns that his son Lucius has been banished from Rome, he sees it as a good thing.
TITUS: O happy man! They have befriended thee.
Why, foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive
That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?
When Lucius returns from his banishment, he describes the experience:
LUCIUS: Myself unkindly banished,
That gates shut on me and turn'd weeping out
To be relief among Rome's enemies;
Who drown'd their enmity in my true tears,
And op'd their arms to embrace me as a friend ...
My scars can witness, dumb although they are,
That my report is just and full of truth.
But soft, methinks I do digress too much,
Citing my worthless praise: O, pardon me;
For when no friends are by, men praise themselves.