The deaths of Romeo and Juliet occur in a sequence of compounding stages: first, Juliet drinks a potion that makes her appear dead. Thinking her 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 deaths a peaceful symmetry, which is broken by Juliet’s dramatic dagger stroke. Throughout Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare has held 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 and Juliet long to live for love or die for it. Shakespeare considers this suicidal impulse not as something separate from love, but rather as an element as much a part of it as the romantic euphoria of Act 2. As such, the double suicide represents both the fulfillment of their love for each other and the self-destructive impulse that has surged and flexed beneath their love for the duration of the play. The Friar’s embodiment of good and evil are united in a single act: suicide. Juliet tries to kill herself with a kiss: an act of love as intended violence. When that fails she stabs herself with a “happy dagger,” “happy” because it reunites her with her love (5.3.168). Violence becomes an assertion of autonomy over the self and a final deed of profound love.
Social and private forces converge in the suicides of Romeo and Juliet. Paris, Juliet’s would-be husband, challenges Romeo, her actual husband, pitting the embodiments of Juliet’s lack of power in the public sphere against her very real ability to give her heart where she wishes. Through the arrival of the Prince, the law imposes itself, seeking to restore the peace in the name of social order and government. Montague and Capulet arrive, rehashing family tension. None of these forces are able to exert any influence on the young lovers. We have seen Romeo and Juliet time and again attempt to reconfigure the world through language so that their love might have a place to exist peacefully. That language, though powerful in the moment, could never counter the vast forces of the social world. Through suicide, the lovers are able not just to escape the world that oppresses them. Further, in the final blazing glory of their deaths, they transfigure that world. The feud between their families ends. Prince Escalus—the law—recognizes the honor and value due the lovers. In dying, love has conquered all, its passion is shown to be the brightest, most powerful. It seems at last that Friar Lawrence’s words have come to be: “These violent delights have violent ends / And in their triumph die” (2.5.9–10). The extremely intense passion of Romeo and Juliet has trumped all other passions, and in coming to its violent end has forced those other passions, also, to cease.
One senses the grand irony that in death Romeo and Juliet have created the world that would have allowed their love to live. That irony does exist, and it is tragic. But because of the power and beauty of their love, it is hard to see Romeo and Juliet’s death as a simple tragedy. Romeo and Juliet’s deaths are tragic, but this tragedy was fated: by the stars, by the violent world in which they live, 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 of life as much as we feel wrenched by the incredible act of love that Romeo and Juliet have committed as monuments to each other and their love. Romeo and Juliet have been immortalized as the archetypes of true love not because their tragic deaths bury their parents’ strife, but rather because they are willing to sacrifice everything—including themselves—for their love. That Romeo and Juliet must kill themselves to preserve their love is tragic. That they do kill themselves to preserve their love makes them transcendent.