The Question of Romance in Suicide as Portrayed in Romeo and Juliet

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“Romeo and Juliet” is one of the single most romantic stories ever written. Or the most pathetic, depending on how you feel about totally avoidable suicide pacts. But whether you see the lovers’ deaths as a pledge of devotion or mere hormonal idiocy, perhaps the more interesting question is whether or not Romeo and Juliet had the same motivations for dying.

Let’s recap. Already married to Romeo, Juliet fakes her own death to escape having to marry Paris, only Romeo doesn’t get word of the scheme in time and believes she is truly dead. When Romeo receives news of her death, he buys poison, heads for Juliet’s tomb, kills Paris at the door, and kills himself by Juliet’s side. Juliet then awakens to see Romeo dead, whereupon she decides to stab herself. Cue parental life lessons and something about the impracticality of blood feuds.

A lot of people accuse the lovers of being impulsive in their double-suicide, but to give credit where credit is due, Romeo’s death actually requires a fair amount of determination. He has already been banished from Verona under pain of death, so simply trekking back from Mantua is an ordeal. Moreover, poison is a banned substance, meaning Romeo has to strong-arm the apothecary into selling him any. When he finally gets to the tomb, Paris is blocking the way, so Romeo has to fight and kill him. THEN he drinks the poison. A+ for effort.

Moreover, despite being a young man with wealth and connections who could presumably fare very well in another city, Romeo immediately tries to stab himself upon receiving word of his banishment. In fact, it is already established that Juliet is the woman for whom Romeo “would die” in the prologue of Act 2 – long before the relationship is threatened, right? Er… actually, that lesser-known Romeo and Juliet quote is about Romeo’s previous crush, Rosaline. As it turns out, he would have died for her, too. So yes, it would appear that Romeo isn’t the kind of guy to sully a romantic gesture like suicide with any concern for practical, extenuating circumstances; however, whether or not he is the picture of emotional health is another story altogether.

Juliet’s suicide is a bit of a different story. Awakening to a tomb-ful of rotting relatives and a newly dead husband, Juliet doesn’t have the luxury of painstakingly planning out her demise. On the one hand, the fact that she stashes a just-in-case dagger by her bed before taking her sleeping potion would suggest that that she is equally determined not to live without Romeo, but on the other, Juliet is already dead as far as everyone is concerned; if she were to miraculously reappear now, she’d have some serious ‘splainin’ to do.

Perhaps Juliet could have pulled a Hester Prynne à la The Scarlet Letter and gone on to live a long and joyless virtuous life atoning for her youthful mistakes, but that’s only assuming that Lord Capulet wouldn’t have ended her first. Keep in mind that this is a guy who has already threatened to let her “hang, beg, starve, die in the streets” – and that’s just for refusing to marry a complete stranger.  Eloping with a blood enemy who killed her cousin and her intended fiancée before leaving her a widow? We don’t foresee something like that ending in discussion of the I-appreciate-your-honesty variety.

The romantics among us will surely maintain that Juliet kills herself with only Romeo in mind, but considering that she also happens to be a female in Ye Olden Days who is rarely unaccompanied by a guardian, has never been outside the city, is no longer a virgin, and, oh yeah, is only thirteen years old, it’s hard to imagine that Romeo and Juliet could have ended any other way. 

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