Titus Andronicus is a bit contentious in Shakespeare circles. Is it just Shakespeare at his most savage, or was it actually an Elizabethan version of Pulp Fiction-- a piece so over-the-top in its violence as to actually be a satire of the conventions it traffics in? Was Shakespeare post-modern?

The play was one of the first Shakespeare ever wrote, dating back to around 1594. The story is, like all Shakespeare plots, a bit complicated:

It opens with a struggle for the throne of the recently departed emperor between Saturninus, the emperor's oldest yet bratty son, and Bassianus, the younger but much more reasonable and likeable son. Instead, the crowd elects Titus Andronicus, a military hero and general of the Romans, who has just returned triumphant from war against the Goths. The war has cost Titus 21 of his 25(!) sons, but he returns to the city with Tamora, the Goth Queen, and her sons as prisoners. Pursuant to Roman custom, Titus must publicly execute one of the prisoners. He settles on Tamora's oldest son, despite her pleas that he spare her son and kill her instead. Corpse no. 1 thus becomes Tamora's oldest son, earning Titus a spiteful vow of revenge from Tamora.
However, when Titus learns he has been elected Emperor, he declines, citing his advanced age, and dutifully endorses Saturninus, simply because he is the oldest son of the Emperor, not because he's the right man for the job. Saturninus, thinking he's doing Titus a favor, announces that he will take Titus' daughter, Lavinia, as his new queen. The only sticking point is that Lavinia is engaged to Bassianus. Unwilling to give up his lovely fiancee to his skeevy brother, Bassianus, backed by a couple of Titus' sons, flee the city with Lavinia in tow. Titus, who is all about honor, actually offs one of his own sons trying to prevent the escape. Saturninus, stung by the embarassment, decides to claim Tamora as his bride, taking her from prisoner to Empress is all of about 5 seconds. Tamora urges her new beau to forgive the humiliation visited upon him by the Andronicus brood, promising him that she'll make sure they get their comeuppance at the end.
Like all good royalty, Tamora has a little something-somthing on the side. In this case, it's the thoroughly evil moor Aaron. Aaron encourages Tamora's two sons to abduct and rape Titus' daughter Lavinia at an upcoming hunt staged by Titus to honor the new Emperor. At the hunt, Lavinia and Bassianus, out for a tryst in the bushes, come across Tamora and Aaron in flagrante delicto. Tamora's kids suddenly jump out and stab Bassianus, while Tamora gets ready to off Lavinia. Tamora's sons ask, however, that Lavinia be spared until they have their way with her. Although Lavinia begs that Tamora just kill her, Tamora turns Lavinia over to her sons. The take her to the woods, rape her, cut off her hands and tongue to keep her from identifying them, and leave her. She is later discovered by Titus' brother, Marcus.
Meanwhile, Aaron has gotten his pants on and has engineered a stunt that frames two of Titus' sons for the murder of Bassianus. The two sons are arrested, and Titus' last remaining son, Lucius, heads to the Emperor to plead for mercy, only to get himself banished from Rome. Titus is still distraught from the impending execution of his two sons when Marcus shows up with the disfigured Lavinia. Never one to shy away from kicking someone when he's down, Aaron takes the opportunity to pop up, and tells Titus that the Emperor will spare his sons if he cuts off his own hand. Titus quickly chops off his hand and sends it to the Emperor. Only it turns out that Aaron was lying-- who would have thought?-- and Titus gets his hand sent back, along with the heads of his two sons.
This pretty much sends the old man around the bend. Lucius, Titus' last remaining son, goes off to the same Goths his dad vanquished to ask them to raise an army to overthrow the Emperor. Meanwhile, Lavinia takes a stick in her mouth and writes out the name of her rapists-- Tamora's kids-- in the dirt, which only causes her dad even more grief. Back at the Emperor's palace, Tamora's aardvarking with Aaron has resulted in her giving birth to a mulatto baby. Not wanting to queer her marriage to the Emperor, she sends a nurse with the baby to the proud papa, asking him to kill it. In a speech worthy of "Shaft," Aaron touts the supremacy of the black race, kills the nurse, and splits with the baby back to Gothville.
Titus brings a bunch of archers out into the courtyard of the Palace, telling them he's going to write petitions on their arrows that they will then shoot to the Gods. Of course, the arrows wind up in the Emperor's bedroom, where Saturninus, the Emperor, goes berzerk that Titus is broadcasting all this bad karma about his reign. To make things worse, he then gets a message that Titus' son Lucius is rallying the Goth army to take Rome. Tamora cools him off by offering to arrange a conclave at Chez Titus, saying that she can get Titus to tell Lucius to back off.
In the Goth camp, the Goths are thrilled to be fighting on behalf of the same Andronicusses that whomped them some indeterminate time earlier. They find Aaron hiding out with his love child, and bring him to Lucius. Lucius orders the Goths to hang the child first, so Aaron can watch, and then Aaron himself. Aaron offers to trade his child's life for a full confession, which he spits out in unprenetantly gleeful, malevolent detail. Lucius decides that "hangin's too good fer 'im," and gags him. Lucius gets the message about the meeting at Titus' house, and agrees to come. In the meantime, Tamora and her sons have gone to Titus' place, thinking that he's gone nuts. Dressed up like the Gods of Revenge, Rape, and Murder, they offer to settle the crazy old man's hash with all his enemies if he'll convince Lucius to come to the meeting. (Tamora thinks that, with Lucius gone, she can stir her old Goth pals into a rebellion.) Titus, who ain't as crazy as he seems, tells "Revenge" that he'll go along with her plan, but asks her to leave "Rape" and "Murder" with him until she returns for the meeting. She does, and Titus, who it turns out was faking the nuttiness, has Tamora's sons taken prisoner. In a really creepy bit, he slits their throats and drains their blood (into a bowl Lavinia holds in her stumps), telling them that he's going to grind up their bodies and bake them into pies he'll serve to their mother.
Which brings us to the big finish. Emperor Saturninus and Tamora show up at the dinner at Titus' house, along with Lucius, new chief of the Goth army. Titus comes out in a cook's outfit, and dishes out the meal. Over a nice, tasty mince pie, Titus asks Saturninus whether a figure in a Greek play was correct to kill his own daughter after she had been raped. When Saturninus agrees that the girl was better off dead having lost her honor, Titus summons Lavinia and snaps her neck in front of everyone. Saturninus sputters at this, until Titus explains that Tamora's sons were responsible for her rape and disfigurement. Saturninus calls for them to be brought out (after all-- Tamora had left them there), to which Titus clues them in as to the pie's secret ingredient. Tamora gets a moment to savor the unmitigated ickiness of the whole episode before Titus stabs her. Saturninus stabs Titus, and Lucius stabs Saturninus. In an epilouge, Lucius offers up the whole story to the people of Rome, who, sympathetic as they are, make him the new Emperor. He orders Aaron to be buried up to his neck in sand and left to starve to death, and orders that Tamora's body be thrown to "wild beasts," since she was such a beast while alive. Curtain, applause, head for the parkings lots.

Well, that's rather a lot, even for a tragedy. By one scholar's count, Titus Andronicus "has 14 corpses, 9 of them killed onstage, 6 severed members, 1 rape, 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity, and 1 case of cannibalism, or an average of 5 atrocities per act (or one every 97 lines)." The CAPalert guy would have a hissy fit over it. But some scholars cite the tremendous body count as evidence that Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus as a rock-em, sock-em action piece, not as a sophisticated, symbolic work. If anything, Shakespeare was writing a stage equivalent of a modern day slasher film, having a good laugh racheting up the outrageousness of the story, bit-by-bit, until the improbable, blood-soaked finale.

There's some eivdence that Shakeaspeare saw the whole thing as a big put-on. One of the most telling bits involves the scene where Titus cuts off his hand hoping to save his sons. He starts off with a bad pun while asking Aaron to fetch him an ax: "Lend me thy hand, and I will give you mine," and later, when his hand is returned to him along with the heads of his sons, tells Lavinia to pick up the hand with her teeth, rather than asking his able-bodied brother to take it. The scene plays out so surrealistically that, far from inspiring pathos, Shakespeare must've fully expected the groundlings to laugh at it. Similarly, the finale-- baking Tamora's sons into pies and then feeding them to her-- is Grand Guignol stuff, not the kind of thing that shows up in any of Shakespeare's more serious works.

On the other hand, critics point out that: (i) the play was one of Shakespeare's first, and betrays his lack of seasoned restraint, and (ii) he probably didn't write it anyway. The latter conclusion is based on the same thoughts as the "he was just joking" school: that the play is so un-Shakespeare in structure and tone that he couldn't have written it. The nay-sayers also point to the cast, which is full of one-dimensional characters. Aaron is unrepentantly evil, from beginning to end, and Tamora is ultimately decried as "beastly," even though nobody seems to recall that Titus killed her son in cold blood in front of her. Even Titus himself is all over the place: he's steadfastly adhering to a barbaric Roman custom, he's loyal to Saturninus to the point of slaying his own son, yet he winds up with a psychopathic bloodlust. Modern scholars have pretty much rejected the idea that the play was written by anyone other than Shakespeare; they just cut him some slack for it being a rookie effort.

Being so irredeemibly nasty, Titus Andronicus doesn't get the good press that other Shakespeare plays do. Few companies undertake the burden of performing it, and imdb.com lists only two film versions, both from the past couple years. By far, the more interesting take is Titus, a 1999 version by Julie Taymor, who's best known for reworking Disney's cartoon The Lion King into a dazzling stage version. Taymor's Titus is staged as a kitschy hybrid of ancient and modern, much like Norman Jewison's film version of Jesus Christ Superstar or Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. For example, Bassianus and Saturninus cruise up to the palace in Cadillacs, with Hell's Angels as their cheering supporters, yet the backdrop is an ancient Roman ruin. Taymor is all about visual splendor, and some of her scenes, particularly the discovery of the mutilated Lavinia, tied to a stake and windblown in a barren swamp, are haunting. However, like Shakespeare himself, Taymor can go a little overboard at times, dressing up Anthony Hopkins' Titus as Chef Boyardee for the big finale. Given the lushness of the visual style, one can forgive her excesses now and then and just enjoy a good performance by Hopkins. Because Titus doesn't have much logic as a fully-imagined character, Hopkins just takes the opportunity to chew up the scenery, but does so with gusto.

www.sparknotes.com/titus/summary.html has that great quote about the atrocities count.
shakespeare.eb.com/shakespeare/micro/731/28.html and many others I've since missed discuss the debate over whether the play is funny Shakespeare, bad Shakespeare, or non-Shakespeare.