Read a translation of Act 5, scene 3→


The deaths of Romeo and Juliet occur in a sequence ofcompounding stages: first, Juliet drinks a potion that makes her appear dead. Thinkingher dead, Romeo then drinks a poison that actually kills him.Seeing him dead, Juliet stabs herself through the heart with a dagger.Their parallel consumption of mysterious potions lends their deathsa peaceful symmetry, which is broken by Juliet’s dramatic daggerstroke. Throughout Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare hasheld up the possibility of suicide as an inherent aspect of intense love.Passion cannot be stifled, and when combined with the vigor of youth,it expresses itself through the most convenient outlet. Romeo andJuliet long to live for love or die for it. Shakespeare considers thissuicidal impulse not as something separate from love, but rather asan element as much a part of it as the romantic euphoria of Act2. As such, the double suicide represents both the fulfillmentof their love for each other and the self-destructive impulse thathas surged and flexed beneath their love for the duration of theplay. The Friar’s embodiment of good and evil are united in a singleact: suicide. Juliet tries to kill herself with a kiss: an act oflove as intended violence. When that fails she stabs herselfwith a “happy dagger,” “happy” because it reunites her with herlove (5.3.168). Violence becomes an assertionof autonomy over the self and a final deed of profound love.

Social and private forces converge in the suicides ofRomeo and Juliet. Paris, Juliet’s would-be husband, challenges Romeo,her actual husband, pitting the embodiments of Juliet’s lack ofpower in the public sphere against her very real ability to giveher heart where she wishes. Through the arrival of the Prince, thelaw imposes itself, seeking to restore the peace in the name ofsocial order and government. Montague and Capulet arrive, rehashingfamily tension. None of these forces are able to exert any influenceon the young lovers. We have seen Romeo and Juliet time and againattempt to reconfigure the world through language so that theirlove might have a place to exist peacefully. That language, thoughpowerful in the moment, could never counter the vast forces of thesocial world. Through suicide, the lovers are able not just to escapethe world that oppresses them. Further, in the final blazing gloryof their deaths, they transfigure that world. The feud between theirfamilies ends. Prince Escalus—the law—recognizes the honor and valuedue the lovers. In dying, love has conquered all, its passion isshown to be the brightest, most powerful. It seems at last thatFriar Lawrence’s words have come to be: “These violent delightshave violent ends / And in their triumph die” (2.5.9–10).The extremely intense passion of Romeo and Juliet has trumped allother passions, and in coming to its violent end has forced thoseother passions, also, to cease.

One senses the grand irony that in death Romeo and Juliethave created the world that would have allowed their love to live.That irony does exist, and it is tragic. But because of the powerand beauty of their love, it is hard to see Romeo and Juliet’s deathas a simple tragedy. Romeo and Juliet’s deaths are tragic, but thistragedy was fated: by the stars, by the violent world in which theylive, by the play, and by their very natures. We, as an audience, want this death,this tragedy. At the play’s end, we do not feel sad for the loss oflife as much as we feel wrenched by the incredible act of love that Romeoand Juliet have committed as monuments to each other and their love.Romeo and Juliet have been immortalized as the archetypes of truelove not because their tragic deaths bury their parents’ strife,but rather because they are willing to sacrifice everything—includingthemselves—for their love. That Romeo and Juliet must kill themselvesto preserve their love is tragic. That they do kill themselves topreserve their love makes them transcendent.

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