‘The Death of Romeo and Juliet’ by John Everett Millais


The Death of Romeo and Juliet by John Everett Millais

Accession number: 1906P646

Date: 1848

This compositional study depicts the moment when the bodies of Romeo and Juliet are discovered in Act V scene iii. The ‘star-cross’d lovers’ have reached their ends, with Romeo’s dramatic speech:

Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace! and, lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!
Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark!
Here’s to my love!

Juliet, awakening from her drug-induced stupor, realises Romeo has died also, and stabs herself with his dagger. Their bodies are discovered, with the figures mourning them in Shakespeare’s scene being First, Second and Third Watchmen, the Prince, the Capulets and Montagues, Balthasar, a Page and Friar Laurence. It is difficult to tell which of these is present in the throng of figures in Millais’s sketch, and an oil sketch of the same topic, with similar construction (Manchester City Art Galleries) does not make this clearer, though here it becomes apparent that Friar Laurence is one of the characters kneeling over the corpses.[1]

In the play, Friar Laurence delivers an explanation to those present:

Romeo, there dead, was husband to that Juliet;
And she, there dead, that Romeo’s faithful wife:

His long speech suggests he does not hold himself responsible for the events that have passed, but rather that the violence of young passion and the workings of fate must be blamed. The Prince, however, summing up and closing the play, indicates the blame must be placed on the discord between the Capulets and Monagues:

Capulet! Montague!
See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.

Millais’s sketch makes the drama of the situation clear, as the terrible realisation of the course of events dawns upon the figures, and the busyness of the scene contrasts effectively with the inert bodies, almost obscured by the mourners. The expressions of concern or horror on their faces are almost cartoonish in this pencil sketch, and little more serious in the oil sketch, particularly with the figure of the boy holding up the vial of poison. Juliet’s face can be seen, however, her eyes closed and a look of peace on her face as her arm drapes over Romeo. Millais’s visualisation of the dramatic scene emphasises the reunion of the families, as some embrace while others gaze in mutual despair.

[1] http://www.english.emory.edu/classes/Shakespeare_Illustrated/Millais.Death.html