Gil's observations about the heroic tone of Act 1 hit the nail on the head, and I was especially drawn to the subsequent triangulation of Titus (as "civilized, public, ethical" Rome), Saturninus (as "anti-Rome, self-centered and immoral") and Aaron (as "amoral, beyond the limits of society") as a description of the play's internal conflicts. If this geometry is accurate, then Titus Andronicus is not a play about a man with a tragic flaw, or a man undone by forces beyond his control, but about Rome. And here I think Rome is a metaphor for the precariousness of a moral society, or at least civil order.
I think the answer to Gil's dissatisfaction with the play's outcome lies in his final observation regarding the transformation of the forest, from Derek Traversi's An Approach to Shakespeare.
To summarize Traversi briefly, he argues that "In the recesses of the forest, and in the energies of the hunt, the principal characters are taken out of their normal public selves ... and revealed in the intimacy of their contrasted reactions" (50). Act 2, scene 2 begins with a hunt that represents order and civility. The opposing factions, Titus hopes, will come together in shared jocularity. The woods are portrayed as apt setting for this detente: "...the moon is bright and gay / The fields are fragrant, and the woods are green" (2.2.1-2). This orderly pastoral quality is soon replaced, Traversi notes, by "triumphant sensuality." Tamora's wooing of Aaron by suggesting that Nature has made the bed for them begins by echoing Titus's earlier description:
"The birds chant melody on every bush;
The snake lies rolled in the cheerful sun;
The green leaves quiver with the cooling wind,
And make a chequer'd shadow on the ground." (2.3.12-15)
But then she converts idyllic nature to setting for lovemaking:
"And, after conflict such as was supposed
The wandering prince and Dido once enjoy'd,
When with a happy storm they were surpris'd,
And curtain'd with a counsel-keeping cave,
We may, each wreathed in the other's arms,
Our pastimes done, possess a golden slumber." (2.3.21-26)
Aaron, determined instead to pursue revenge, subverts Nature at this point, turning it to a setting of horror. Traversi makes the transition by describing their vengeful endeavors as "dark deed(s) of passion." Tamora's description of Nature that follows, of the very same place she just described in such idyllic terms, reflects this change:
"A barren detested vale, you see it is;
The trees, though summer, yet forlorn and lean,
O'ercome with moss and baleful mistletoe:
Here never shines the sun: here nothing breeds,
Unless the nightly owl or fatal raven." (2.3.93-97)
To Traversi, this transformation of natural setting implies, through "relation to human passions and desires," "moral desolation." Mike's concern about nihilism here is entirely appropriate (I'm not sure I get Northrop Frye's definition of irony, so I won't go into that), but again, if we see this not merely as the tragedy of Titus in which Aaron's amoral villainy triumphs, but of Rome, then we can avoid the sense that important political and social institutions have been destroyed when Lucius promises not only "to order well the state," but "to heal Rome's harms and wipe away her woe!" But more on that in a minute.
I agree with Traversi that Act 2 constitutes the "imaginative center of the play," and I am struck here by the parallel with A Midsummer Night's Dream. When the Athenians depart to the woods in Act 2, all the rules of the society they know are turned topsy-turvy. The separation between the urban and natural, between the mortal and magic worlds, is clear; we understand that, in the comedy, humans moved outside their sphere are the sooner shown to be foolish. In Titus, the society has already been turned upside down by Titus's irrational murder of Mutius and Saturninus's ignoble self-centeredness, before everyone repairs to the woods. Part of the difference is that we are now in the tragic mode, and human folly is replaced by noble failure. Titus can't be in the woods when he makes his mistake because his mistake must come from within not without, but the woods can reflect the human moral experience as it shifts from honor, to dishonor, to immorality, to amorality.
So Nature, or perhaps the better term is "wilderness," becomes the dominant theme in the play. After Act 2, we get Lavinia's mutilation described as if she were a plant, Rome perceived as a wilderness of tigers," Titus's seeking the personified Revenge in a cave, a defeated Tamora's body left to the birds, Aaron buried chest-deep in the dirt, and Titus's perception of himself as:
"... I stand as one upon a rock,
Environed with a wilderness of sea,
Who marks the waxing tide grow wave by wave,
Expecting ever when some envious surge
Will in his brinish bowels swallow him." (3.1.95-99)
(This last image subverts Titus's initial heroic/merchant image of himself.) Titus, Saturninus, Tamora and Aaron force Rome into a wilderness state. And only through the wholesale slaughter of all the principals, does it return from thence. One must ask if Lucius can be trusted to handle the job of righting the ship of state. Gil illustrates the play's starting point -- "The civilized social order is in place," an "exposition of heroic virtue"; if Rome can return to these then we avoid a nihilistic denouement. I believe Gil's dissatisfaction is answered by ... Lucius. He is left alive, and the horror has left him, if not ennobled, at least chastened. His first act is to bury his father and sister in the family tomb (an echo of the social order of Act 1), and he refers to his final kiss and tears as "the last true duties of thy noble son." I said when we started this discussion, that Titus's nobility is damaged by his disloyalty to his honorable family. Despite Titus's madness, rash acts, murder of the emperor, etc., Lucius honors him as both a father and one loyal to Rome; this is heroic virtue. He does the same with Saturninus! Compared to Titus's near refusal to bury Mutius in the family vault, Lucius's decision to "give (Saturninus) burial in his father's grave" demonstrates how the events of the play have ennobled him.
Make what you will of the play's excesses or lack of human feeling (Van Doren) or limiting Senecan construction (H. T. Price), in Titus Andronicus Shakespeare gives us a play that pulls out all the bloody stops of revenge tragedy, but avoids the resultant moral desolation by sending us out in a way that reestablishes civil order and a moral society.
Not bad for an "immature" playwright.
PS: As host, I'll close the conversation on Titus anon. If you have final comments, send 'em out.