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The Six Deaths in Romeo and Juliet and What They Mean

Andrea Lawrence has a master's in creative writing. She studied fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting.

Understanding Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet—it is not an impossible task! Read on to learn about the play's six deaths and what they mean. The painting is by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale.

Understanding Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet—it is not an impossible task! Read on to learn about the play's six deaths and what they mean. The painting is by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale.

The Six Deaths of Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet, a couple fated by the stars to join in sweet matrimony, but whose romance was tragically cut short and, as we all know, who both died.

The play is often taught to junior high students as an introduction to Shakespeare. There have been countless reproductions of the famous play, as well as movies, TV shows, ballets, and symphonies based on the Bard's masterpiece.

The play can be viewed as more tragic than romantic. It is possible to read it as an allegory for the troubles of society. It can be read as a warning: Calamitous things happen when two political parties can't find common ground.

A young teen, Juliet, is promoted like cattle for marriage; she is forced to grow up within five days. She is burdened by her role as a female in late 16th-century Verona. At 13, quickly approaching 14, her family is ready to find her a suitor.

A slightly older teen, Romeo, idealizes a world in which true love reigns. He is drawn into a toxic sphere based on his gender: violence as a male passage right. He is fated to pick up the sword, not a bouquet of flowers.

This article will look at the six deaths that occur in Romeo and Juliet. Most of the deaths take place onstage. If we follow the trail of death, we can argue that the central character of the story, and the one who carries the burden of the conflict, is Romeo, not Juliet.

The following people die in the play (and in this order):

  • Mercutio
  • Tybalt
  • Lady Montague
  • Count Paris
  • Romeo
  • Juliet

Romeo and Juliet Crash Course

The Events That Take Place Before the First Death

The first act of bloodshed takes place in Act III, scene I. This comes after the play has laid down the foundation of the Capulets and Montagues as rival families. The animosity between the two families is ancient. It's unclear what is at the heart of their feud, but the families don't cooperate with each other. They're both privileged families with lavish properties and servants.

Shakespeare, in his wisdom, didn't establish a backstory for the Capulet and Montague feud. Establishing why the two families hate each other could cause the audience to pick a side. Shakespeare designed the play so that the audience sees the Capulets and Montagues as morally the same; there is no reason to side with Romeo's family or Juliet's.

Romeo and Juliet may be the first people in a long line of ancestors to try and break the curse that’s been hovering over the two families. The two teenagers fall in love, and it’s expeditious, crazy, and ill-fated. Their love can also be described as brave, for it challenged the boundaries of their families’ expectations.

In a way, Romeo and Juliet succeeded in challenging the feud. At the end of the play, the two families make peace, but they also try to outdo the other family's memorial plans for the deceased teens. If one family puts down ten roses, the other will put down one hundred.

The Height of Happiness: The Capulet Ball

After the foundation is laid that the Capulets and Montagues don't get along, Romeo attends a Capulet ball with his friends. Romeo is lovesick over Rosaline, Lord Capulet's niece and Juliet's cousin. Romeo, from the very start of the play, was flirting with forbidden fruit: taking on a Capulet partner.

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Tybalt, Juliet's cousin, is incensed that Romeo had the gumption to attend the Capulet party. He challenges Romeo to a duel. Lord Capulet prevents the fight because he doesn't want to put a damper on the festivities.

Romeo meets Juliet and the two converse by speaking couplets of a sonnet and in perfect iambic pentameter. Just after 14 lines, they kiss. During the party, Juliet's parents make arrangements to marry their daughter off to Count Paris, a man they see as a suitable and stable partner for the 13-year-old girl. The marriage would benefit Juliet's parents because counts are in the upper echelon of society.

Unbeknownst to the Capulets, Juliet is getting caught up in the poetry, idealism, and spontaneity of Romeo. Following the party, the teens meet in secret. Juliet stands on a balcony, and Romeo speaks to her from below.

Clocking in at around 12 hours, Romeo and Juliet move from secretly starting a romantic connection to getting married. Friar Laurence agrees to marry the young couple; he hopes the union will quell the conflict between the Capulets and Montagues.

The wedding is described with images of happiness and love, but it's also paired with images of violence and death. The wedding hints at the violent and terrible things to come.

The wedding closes Act II.

Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives that I mean to make bold withal, and, as you shall use me hereafter, dry beat the rest of the eight. Will you pluck your sword out of his pilcher by the ears? Make haste, lest mine be about your ears ere it be out.

— Mercutio to Tybalt

The First to Die: Mercutio

At the beginning of Act III, Tybalt runs into Mercutio and Benvolio. Tybalt aggresses Mercutio for being a friend of Romeo. Mercutio takes offense at Tybalt's insinuations. Benvolio tries to calm them down. Romeo comes onto the scene and Tybalt finally gets his desired confrontation with the young Montague.

But Romeo wants no part in Tybalt's challenge because Tybalt is now his kinsman. He doesn't want to harm Juliet's cousin. Romeo declines the match:

Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee
Doth much excuse the appertaining rage
To such a greeting. Villain am I none.
Therefore farewell; I see thou knowest me not.

Tybalt's Grudge Is the Product of Many Generations of Hate

Tybalt is the older of the two young men; he is 17 to 18. Romeo is 16. Tybalt's challenge is ostentatious. Prince Escalus has banned dueling on pain of death. But Tybalt doesn't care about the consequences. He is willing to risk imprisonment or worse, the death penalty, for Romeo's murder; he's also willing to die so that Romeo is punished. He doesn't try to resolve the issue he has with Romeo or the Montagues in any other way: he demands bloodshed. It's extreme: In Tybalt's mind, crashing the Capulet ball is a crime that's paid by death.

Tybalt, perhaps, has made up a reason to kill Romeo. What Tybalt likely really wants is to be seen as a hero who puts down one of the Montague devils. He is the product of years and years of hate toward a rival family. He is the manifestation of generational trauma.

As much as the audience despises Tybalt for his love of violence, and for being the chink in the armor that caused Romeo and Juliet's tragedy...Tybalt was fated to his anger. The play determines that there would always at some point be a Capulet or Montague who would pursue violence to address the feud. Years and years of hate passed down by families morphs into destruction, and Tybalt happens to be the character who adopts that anger.

Romeo's New Marriage Doesn't Protect Him or His Friends

Romeo takes the high road and declines Tybalt's invitation for a public duel. Tybalt responds by insulting him, an attempt at getting a rise out of him. Romeo still doesn't acquiesce, but Mercutio is angered by Tybalt's insults. Mercutio is also annoyed with Romeo's reluctance to fight; he thinks Romeo is being a coward. He doesn't know that Romeo has married Juliet and has reason to decline the duel. Mercutio draws his sword—he accepts the fight on Romeo's behalf. Tybalt draws his sword in response.

Romeo wants to stop the fighting and he tries to prevent it, but he can't do anything to change the course of fate. He steps between the combatants in an effort to break off the fight. Tybalt slides his sword under Romeo's arm, delivering Mercutio a fatal blow. Tybalt and his cronies run away.

Mercutio utters some of his most famous lines at his parting:

  • "A pox on both your houses!"
  • "Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man."
  • "Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch; marry, 'tis enough. Where is my page? Go, villain, fetch a surgeon."
  • "Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm."

Innocence Lost

The death of Mercutio is a major plot point in the play. It sets off a domino effect that ends with Romeo and Juliet's unfortunate demises. Mercutio's death signals the end of innocence. The play is lighthearted until the duel scene. When Romeo's closest friend dies, and in his final words wishes a pox on both houses, the seriousness of the conflict between the two rival families is realized.

Romeo is no longer just a youth who is lovesick, idealizing a magical future, and happily impulsive without any real consequence. A shadow hangs over him as he turns to grief; he is forced to recognize the reality of death and its suddenness. Romeo narrowly avoided Tybalt's blade.

The unnecessarily violent and sudden death of Romeo's friend pushes him into a rage he has never experienced. In a split second, he switches from a policy of pacificism to an overpowering desire for revenge. The Montagues are known for their fiery and impulsive behavior, and Mercutio's death acts as fuel for Romeo's anger. The metamorphosis is quick: Romeo loses his boyishness and takes on a burden more akin to men who seek to avenge and protect their loved ones.

Romeo worries that his love for Juliet has made him weak. He worries his pacificism toward Tybalt was effeminate, so he seeks to prove his claim to manhood. Romeo says the following after Mercutio's death:

O sweet Juliet, thy beauty hath made me effeminate
And, in my temper, softened valor's steel!

Nothing will ever be the same. The loss of a beloved friend is maddeningly deep, and right after the high of Romeo's secret marriage to Juliet. Had Romeo taken his feelings in private, perhaps he could have had the council and empathy of Juliet. Instead, he falls for Tybalt's trap: die or be punished.

Romeo says the following after Benvolio confirms Mercutio is dead:

This day's black fate on more days doth depend;
This but begins the woe others must end.

Tybalt Slain

Moments after Mercutio's death, Tybalt returns to the scene. Romeo can only see red. He is consumed with anger. Any love from Juliet that could have softened Romeo's heart and prevented him from doing something incredibly foolish is gone.

Romeo demands that someone must die to keep Mercutio company:

Now, Tybalt, take the ‘villain’ back again,
That late thou gavest me; for Mercutio's soul
Is but a little way above our heads,
Staying for thine to keep him company.
Either thou or I, or both, must go with him.

Tybalt finally gets his duel with Romeo, and it costs him his life. Romeo, overpowered by hate, slays his wife's cousin. By killing Tybalt, Romeo figuratively signs his name on a contract for misfortune to follow him.

The Prince arrives and acts as a judge for the duels and deaths. Lady Capulet pleads with the Prince to sentence Romeo to death for killing her nephew. Benvolio describes the scene of Tybalt's encounter with Mercutio, the duel, and Mercutio's death. He argues that Romeo who had "newly entertained revenge" slew Tybalt.

The Prince decides that rather than spilling more blood, Romeo should be exiled from Verona.

“Thou, wretched boy, that didst consort him here. Shalt with him hence.”

— Tybalt's last words. They're directed at Romeo

Romeo Banished From Paradise

The banishment of Romeo is similar to Adam and Eve getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Romeo was tempted by the forbidden fruit of falling in love with a Capulet. He was also tempted by Tybalt's request for a duel. He first ignored Tybalt's request and this cost him a dear friend.

Banishment from Verona is incredibly serious. Romeo can't easily connect with his family. He is cut off from fortune, his parent's house, and all the amenities of the city. He is an outcast, marked like Cain after killing Abel. He is relegated to the wilderness. Even if the world outside of Verona is seen as less than, it is still better than death.

At only 16, Romeo is seen as an unforgivable criminal. Losing Mercutio was the first ripple of grief; losing his entire world and his record of innocence was the second. Romeo is excessively burdened, and this puts strain on his relationship with Juliet. She must mourn for her cousin, mourn that Romeo must live outside the city, mourn that they can only meet in secret, and mourn that the only way she can really be with her lover is to leave Verona herself.

Romeo does tell Juliet the bad news before leaving the city. The two cling to each other and hope for a way out of their circumstances. The death of Tybalt creates a great chasm and, unfortunately, love can't simply build a bridge over it. Romeo must leave paradise for creating the chasm.

O, where is Romeo? Saw you him today? Right glad I am he was not at this fray.

— Lady Montague. The line is spoken in Act I, scene I. It foreshadows what is to come

Lady Montague Dies of Grief

Romeo's mother, Lady Montague, dies shortly after Act III scene I. Her death takes place offstage. She was overcome with grief at Romeo's banishment. Her death is mentioned in Act V.

Lady Montague could not handle the stress of losing her son. She was a wealthy and privileged woman who we can assume had expectations about the way Romeo should grow up. To see her expectations destroyed before her eyes, and to face public scrutiny over the matter, was too much for her heart to bear. Even though Romeo's mother's death is mentioned in passing, it's incredibly revealing and sad. Romeo wasn't with his mother in her final moments. He didn't get to say goodbye to her, and she wasn't there in his last moments.

The death of Romeo's mother is another sign that innocence has been lost. The person who brought Romeo into the world is now gone. He must stand for himself without her wisdom. Even though Tybalt entrapped Romeo, the young Montague's actions resulted in agony for his parents.

Romeo wasn't concerned about his mother's feelings: he was concerned about Juliet's. Romeo moved beyond the domestic comforts of his first family to create a new family with his wife. Lady Montague's death is a symbol of Romeo's decision to marry into a new family. He had matured enough, even at the young age of 16, to move outside the careful protection of his parents.

Romeo's maturity into manhood was so chaotic and haphazard that his mother died as an indirect result. Romeo was only a product of the system around him and that's where fate comes into play. Romeo, or someone like him, was always going to materialize: two feuding families that are deeply interconnected would inevitably see the rise of two youths who'd fall in love. There would always be opposition to their love, and it was inevitably going to be a tragedy.

If Lady Montague had been the mother of some other Montague who wouldn't fall in love with a Capulet and rock the tension between the two families, she could have lived many more years. The Montague mother of the son who would fall in love with a Capulet daughter was fated to grief.

Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew—O woe! Thy canopy is dust and stones—which with sweet water nightly I will dew. Or, wanting that, with tears distilled by moans, the obsequies that I for thee will keep nightly shall be to strew thy grave and weep.

— Count Paris mourning Juliet outside her family's tomb

Count Paris and the Loss of Sanity

After so much death, Romeo and Juliet turns into a maddening play. There is a conspiracy to fake death, a clergy that fails to deliver an important message, and a demand for a 13-year-old girl to get married even if it's not what she wants to do.

Juliet's family turns their back on her. In a scene oozing with verbal abuse, Lord Capulet demands Juliet to marry Count Paris, a suitable and steady man who doesn't have the garish reputation of Romeo. Juliet's nurse tries to persuade Juliet to get over Romeo and see him as a nobody. Juliet is talked about as a piece of property. She is forced to grow up and make hard decisions. She goes from lily-white girlhood to preparing herself for a marriage to someone she doesn't love and having children with him.

Juliet wants to be with Romeo, the only one who seems to understand her and the brilliant poetry and idealism she has inside her. Juliet and Romeo had been physical with each other, and this created a bond that Juliet wasn't interested in forgetting or destroying. She was lovesick for Romeo both because he was her husband and because he was the answer to getting her out of her toxic family. Juliet was willing to sacrifice all the privilege and wealth that had been given to her, so she could be with the 16-year-old who killed her cousin. Her situation is dire and there isn't a person she can really confide in to help guide her in this harrowing time, except Friar Laurence.

Friar Laurence has already stirred up trouble by marrying Romeo and Juliet. His next interaction with the couple is a doozy: Give Juliet a potion to make her sleep for three days and cause people to think she is dead, have her be left in the Capulet tomb, and send a letter to Romeo to let him know of the situation, so they can be together at last when she wakes.

Unfortunately, the letter to Romeo never arrives. Friar John, who was in charge of delivering the letter, was stuck in a quarantined house due to an outbreak of the plague. Romeo hears the news that Juliet has died, so he goes to her tomb to be with her. He first goes to an apothecary to get a vial of poison. He wanted to see Juliet one last time before taking the poison and dying. Romeo, by the play's end, is deranged by grief.

When Romeo arrives at the graveyard to mourn for his young wife, he encounters Count Paris. Count Paris is also there to mourn Juliet. By the way, and this is creepy by contemporary standards but not so much for its time, Count Paris is at least 25 years old. The count wanted privacy while at the cemetery and asked his servant to go away. He professes his love for Juliet and promises he will weep nightly for her. Romeo overhears him when he arrives at the Capulet tomb. Count Paris confronts him.

The count believes Romeo is there to desecrate the tomb—since he is a Montague. Count Paris forces Romeo into a duel. Romeo kills the count. He drags the man's body into the tomb and lays him in Juliet's section, so he can be by her and keep his promise to weep for her nightly.

Romeo has now killed two people. And he has taken away Juliet's misfortune and fortune: the suitable suitor who she doesn't love. Romeo is no longer thinking straight because he believes Juliet is dead, and he is set on ending his own life.

Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath, hath had no power yet upon thy beauty. Thou art not conquered; beauty's ensign yet is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks, and death's pale flag is not advanced there.

— Romeo, commenting on Juliet's unfading beauty in the grave

A Major Misconception Leads to Romeo's Death

With each new death in the play, the plot becomes darker and more morose. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is more akin to the works of a writer who would be born centuries later: Edgar Allan Poe. The play hooks people in with its charming setting and the possibility of a fairy tale romance. Then Act III comes in like a wrecking ball.

Despite all the death, there is still hope when Romeo first enters Juliet's tomb. The audience knows she is asleep because of a potion. At any moment, she could wake up, be reunited with Romeo, and the two could leave Verona for good. (I'm honestly not sure how people would feel about that ending. It would be awkward after so much death.)

Romeo is stunned that Juliet still looks beautiful despite how dead people normally look. He says out loud, "The yoke of inauspicious stars from this world-wearied flesh." He speaks to her of his intention to spend all of eternity with her. To him, the world is too cruel to remain in it. Had he slowed down and waited, he could have been there when Juliet woke.

He sees Tybalt's body in the Capulet tomb. It reminds him of the events that led to his downfall:

Tybalt, liest thou there in thy bloody sheet?
O, what more favour can I do to thee
Than, with that hand that cut thy youth in twain,
To sunder his, that was thine enemy?
Forgive me, cousin!

Romeo turns to look at Juliet, and he is bewitched and befuddled by her beauty. He kisses her lips. He drinks the poison. He kisses her again. Romeo dies an extraordinarily painful death, for death by poison is one of the worst ways to die.

Friar Laurence enters the graveyard. He finds Balthasar, Romeo's servant. He tells the friar that Romeo entered the tomb. He says he fell asleep and dreamed Romeo got into a fight and killed someone. This troubles the friar and makes his quest more urgent. As the Friar approaches the entrance of the tomb, he notices bloodstains. It's Count Paris' blood from the duel.

What's here? A cup closed in my true love's hand? Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end. O churl, drunk all and left no friendly drop to help me after. I will kiss thy lips. Haply some poison yet doth hang on them to make me die with a restorative.

— Juliet realizing Romeo is dead

Juliet in Omnishambles

Friar Laurence makes his way to Juliet's vault. He discovers the bodies of Romeo and Count Paris. Juliet wakes at last. She doesn't realize that Romeo is dead yet. She cheerfully says to the friar:

O comfortable friar, Where is my lord
I do remember well where I should be,
And there I am. Where is my Romeo?

The friar explains to Juliet that their plans have been thwarted. He blames a higher power for contradicting their plans. He tells her that both Romeo and Count Paris are dead. He promises to place her in a nunnery and tells her that she can't stay in the tomb for long because the watchmen are coming. The friar, frightened by noises outside of the tomb, makes his way out so as to avoid questioning.

After his exit, Juliet notices the cup of poison in Romeo's hand. She kisses him and hopes poison from his lips will kill her. A watchman enters the tomb, and Juliet makes her choice: instead of being found, she takes Romeo's dagger, stabs herself, and falls over Romeo.

Juliet wakes up to find Romeo dead. Friar Laurence explains the situation to her and encourages her to flee before the watchmen find her.

Juliet wakes up to find Romeo dead. Friar Laurence explains the situation to her and encourages her to flee before the watchmen find her.

The Harsh Reality for Juliet as a 16th-Century Teenager in Verona

Juliet's death is particularly tragic since she is the youngest person to die and the one who likely felt the most despair.

Consider this: Juliet wakes in the tomb hoping to find Romeo alive and well. He was her future. Unfortunately, when she wakes, she finds nothing but death and potential scrutiny. She is in a dire situation. She has faked her own death to her family, and it would be a whirlwind of social craziness to face her parents after the fact. Romeo is dead, and the suitor her parents picked for her is also dead and in her chamber. Two possible futures for her life are gone.

Juliet is overwhelmed by grief that her conspiracy to get back with Romeo has turned grim. Friar Laurence's promise to place her in a nunnery isn't met with relief. Juliet has already felt the passions of marriage, and now to give herself to God and live a quiet life with no agency, no passion, and in secret from her family is its own kind of hell. Juliet doesn't leave with the friar to secure a new future. She mourns for Romeo and wishes to be with him more than anything. When the watchmen arrive she decidedly picks up the dagger and ends her life.

Juliet felt a sense of freedom with Romeo in the first acts of the play. That freedom made her feel liberated after years of living a particular role in the Capulet family with the intention that she would be raised and married off to someone with high political standing and wealth. Her childhood was stripped away from her in the crisis her parents manufactured to have her married off. In Romeo, Juliet found hope for a better life. Without him, there was no hope. She would be but a pawn either as the property of a wealthy man or a devoted fixture of the church. It was all too much to bear at only 13 years old.

Her woe wasn't just from losing Romeo, it was from her extremely diminished role in society. Nothing good, in her mind, would come from being found by the watchmen. Her death, in my opinion, is the saddest of all the deaths in the play. Romeo died because of a tragic misconception whereas his lover, Juliet, died from abandoning all hope. The gate to hell in Dante's Inferno has the following inscription: "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here."

Romeo and Juliet, created in 1884 by Frank Bernard Dicksee.

Romeo and Juliet, created in 1884 by Frank Bernard Dicksee.

What If Romeo Had Never Been Born?

All deaths in Romeo and Juliet are connected to Romeo, not Juliet. With each death, the stakes of the plot are raised. Will these star-crossed lovers find a way out of this mess, or will they be pulled into the domino effect that is death?

Imagine seeing this play for the first time and knowing nothing about it. In Elizabethan times, this play would trick the audience into the lovesick affair of the two teen protagonists, and they'd watch everything unravel until at the very end the Capulets and Montagues compete for who can come up with the best memorial to honor the teens.

If Romeo didn't exist, Tybalt's anger would be redirected toward someone else. The confrontation between Tybalt and Mercutio may have never happened. Romeo's mother wouldn't have died of grief. Juliet would have been spared as well as Count Paris.

Romeo is a cursed character whether by fate or his own free will. He never meant any harm, but he had little if any agency to prevent violence and sorrow. Ultimately, Romeo is a product of his society and less so an actual person. His good intentions didn't protect him. He was born into the unfortunate circumstances of two families' rivalry.

His life at first seemed promising: He was given every advantage in his childhood from servants, wealth, family, and education. He was a bright star with potential and spoiled by Verona's amenities.

His crime? He dreamed of profound love. All he wanted was love, true love. He found someone who understood him on a deep level, and she happened to be a Capulet. And this wasn't the first time he fell head over heels for a Capulet because he was attending the Capulet ball to try and get over Rosaline.

Romeo's idealism and spontaneity weren't meant for a cold-hearted world. He was vulnerable because he refused to accept the feud between his family and the Capulets. He was the one to break the familial curse, and in ending generational trauma, six devils came to take the lives of six people. The first to challenge the Montague-Capulet feud was punished by every societal sector in Verona.

If Romeo hadn't been born, many would have lived. However, the "two households both alike in dignity" would have continued their ancient and hateful grudge.

Help Understanding Shakespeare

Additional Reading

  • Appelbaum, Robert (1997). "Standing to the Wall": The Pressures of Masculinity in Romeo and Juliet". Shakespeare Quarterly. Folger Shakespeare Library. 48 (38): 251–72. doi:10.2307/2871016. ISSN 0037-3222. JSTOR 2871016.
  • Halio, Jay (1998). Romeo and Juliet: A Guide to the Play. Westport: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-30089-5.
  • Levenson, Jill L., ed. (2000). Romeo and Juliet. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-281496-6.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrea Lawrence

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