“Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
-Jacques, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII
This, of course, is the final part of the famous, “All the world’s a stage” speech, but I am highlighting this one specific part for a reason. Saturday, April 23rd was not only Shakespeare’s 452nd birthday, but it was also the 400th anniversary of his death.
The cause of Shakespeare’s death is a topic of some debate. This, however, did make me think about the deaths of so many of Shakespeare’s characters. So, rather than talk about the death of Shakespeare, I figured I would elaborate on the death of his characters.
Many of Shakespeare’s characters met with an untimely demise, particularly in his histories and tragedies, with three of his comedies also having character deaths; these deaths though, are more minor characters, and happen offstage.
Stabbing and poison tended to be the two most popular means by which a character died. Execution, (i.e. for a crime, etc), was also common. It would be safe to assume that, in Shakespeare’s day, anyone condemned to execution was probably either beheaded or hanged. And anyone who died in combat or a battle, was most likely stabbed. But as you will see below, almost nothing was off-limits. I will do my best to include all characters who die in a play, in the order that they die, including even the most minor characters, and the ones who die offstage or before the beginning of the play.
I’ll go by play and begin with the histories.
Shakespeare wrote these plays out of order. This is to say, that he did not write the histories in the order in which these events actually occurred. Nonetheless, with the exception of Henry VIII, when read in the correct order, one history play leads right into the next one. I will go through the histories chronologically.
The Life and Death of King John
Limoges, Duke of Austria: Beheaded during battle by the Bastard. Austria was believed to have been the one responsible for the death of King Richard.
First page of King John in the 1623 First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays.
Arthur: Jumps off a wall, though it is unknown whether this was an act of suicide or an attempt to escape his English captors.
Melun: A Frenchman who is already dying when he warns the English nobles that King Louis plans to kill them following his victory. Melun is a very minor character, only appearing this one time, and cause of death unknown, but most likely wounded during the battle.
King John: As is common, the titular character of Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies usually meets his or her demise eventually. And for King John, it happens when a discontented monk poisons him.
The Life and Death of Richard II
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster: Dies of an illness. Richard than immediately seizes all Gaunt’s land and money, that would rightfully belong to Gaunt’s temporarily exiled son, Bolingbroke. The latter, by the way, becomes King Henry IV.
Bushy and Green: Two faithful supporters of Richard, who are executed by Bolingbroke, to win over the Duke of the York and gain his support.
Duke of Aumerle’s co-conspirators: Bolingbroke has now crowned himself King Henry IV, and the Duke of Aumerle, along with a group of others plan to rebel against Henry. Henry executes Aumerle’s company, but spares Aumerle himself.
King Richard II: Executed by mistake when a nobleman, Exton, murders him, falsely believing that was King Henry’s wish.
King Henry IV, Part One
Harry Percy, Hotspur: Killed by Prince Hal in single combat.
Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester: Captured during the Battle of Shrewsbury and sentenced to death by Henry.
King Henry IV, Part Two
King Henry IV: Dies of an illness. His son, Prince Hal, becomes King Henry V.
Depiction of the Battle of Agincourt.
The Life of King Henry V “Once more unto the breach, dear friends.”
Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scrope, and Sir Thomas Grey: This trio plans to kill King Henry, and when Henry learns of their plot, he calls for their executions.
Sir John Falstaff: Falstaff’s death is not seen; we only hear about his passing. We learn that he died of a broken heart, after King Henry, who was one of Falstaff’s dearest friends when he was a prince, rejected him when he came to Henry’s castle and said that he never wanted to seem him again.
King Henry VI, Part One
King Henry V: He dies unexpectedly at the prime of his life, leaving England in turmoil, and his son to succeed him.
Duke of Bedford: Dies in France, following the Battle of Rouen.
Lord Talbot and his son, John Talbot: They become trapped by the French Army and then subsequently killed by them, when Lord Talbot’s request for reinforcements goes unanswered.
Joan la Pucelle, a.k.a. Joan of Arc: Burned to death by the Duke of York.
King Henry VI, Part Two
Duke Humphrey of Gloucester: Accused of treason, Suffolk has Gloucester imprisoned and then executed before he can be tried.
Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester: Contracts a fever and subsequently dies.
The beginning of the Wars of the Roses in King Henry VI, Part 2.
William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk: Killed by pirates while banished for his role in the death of Gloucester.
Jack Cade: Looking for food, Cade climbs into the garden of Alexander Iden and killed by Iden himself.
Duke of Somerset: Killed by Richard during a battle at St. Albans.
Lord Clifford: Killed by York during a battle at St. Albans.
King Henry VI, Part Three
Edmund Plantagenet, Earl of Rutland: During an attack on York’s castle, York’s son, twelve-year-old Rutland, is murdered by Clifford.
Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York: Stabbed to death by Clifford and Margaret, but not before they forced him to stand on a molehill and wipe his brow with a handkerchief smeared with the blood of his son, Rutland.
Earl of Warwick: Killed at the Battle of Barnet.
John Neville, Marquis of Montague: Warwick’s younger brother, also killed at the Battle of Barnet.
Father (Son Who Has Killed His Father): During the Battle of Barnet, a young man enters dragging the body of a man he has killed. He lifts the man’s helmet off and realizes that he unknowingly killed his own father.
Son (Father Who Has Killed His Son): Shortly thereafter, during the Battle of Barnet, a man enters dragging the body of a younger man that he has killed. When he lifts this young man’s helmet, the older man realizes that he unknowingly killed his own son. Henry witnesses both of these incidents.
Duke of Somerset: During the Battle of Tewkesbury, he is captured with three others, and sentenced to death.
Prince Edward: Also captured at the Battle of Tewkesbury, and stabbed to death by York’s three sons when Edward refused to recognize the House of York as the legitimate royal family.
King Henry VI: Henry was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Richard goes there to kill him, and after an argument between the two, Richard stabs Henry in a rage. This is the Richard who goes on to become Richard III.
King Richard III.
The Life and Death of Richard III “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
George, Duke of Clarence: Sent to the Tower of London based on false accusations made to King Edward by Richard. Richard later orders two men to kill Clarence. Believing that Edward ordered his death, Clarence tells his murderers that his brother, Gloucester (Richard), will pay them more for his life than the king will for his death, and refuses to believe them when his murderers tell him that Gloucester ordered his death.
King Edward IV: King Edward is already ill, and Richard uses the news of Clarence’s death to bring about the King’s death quicker.
Rivers: With Clarence and Edward out of the way, Richard orders the murder Lord Rivers to isolate the Queen and prevent the immediate crowning of the Prince.
Lord Hastings, Lord Grey, and Sir Thomas Vaughan: Relatives of the Queen, who are arrested and then beheaded by Richard, as they accompany the young Prince en route to his coronation.
Edward, Prince of Wales and Richard, Duke of York: After being led to the Tower of London by Richard, the latter orders Buckingham to kill them. When Buckingham refuses, Richard hires Sir James Tyrell, who finishes the job.
Lady Anne Neville: Richard’s queen, yet he poisons her so that he can be free to woo his niece, and Edward’s remaining heir, Elizabeth of York.
Duke of Buckingham: After being Richard’s ally before, Buckingham later rebels against him, is captured and executed.
Sir Robert Brackenbury: It is announced that Sir Brackenbury has died fighting for Richard in The Battle of Bosworth Field.
King Richard III: At the climax of the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard is unhorsed, (“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”) and subsequently killed by Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who now becomes Henry VII.
The Life of King Henry VIII
Duke of Buckingham: Cardinal Wolsey falsely accuses Buckingham for treason and has him arrested. He is later executed.
Cardinal Wolsey: After his villainous scheming is discovered by the king, Wolsey quickly falls from grace. Now following the path of humility and honesty, Wolsey leaves the court for a monastery, where dies soon after.
And now, onto the tragedies.
I will do these in a certain order as well, from the least bloody play with the least amount of deaths, leading up to the bloodiest play with the most fatalities.
A scene from the final act of Coriolanus, where Volumnia pleads with her son to reconsider his attack on Rome.
The Tragedy of Coriolanus
Caius Marcius, Coriolanus: He is killed by Volscian conspirators for betraying them. He halted his attack on Rome and formed a peace treaty between the Volscians and the Romans, after he had told the Volscians that he would lead them to a victory against Rome.
Timon of Athens
Man: A junior officer of Alcibiades kills a man in “hot blood”. This man is a minor character, and this is all we know about his death.
Timon: He dies in the wilderness, having lost all money and means. His overt generosity and compassion has undone Timon, causing his friends to take advantage of him and ultimately betray him.
Troilus and Cressida
Patroclus: Killed by Hector during battle.
Hector: Captured by Achilles who then instructs the Myrmidons.
Othello and Iago.
Othello, the Moor of Venice
Rodrigo: Stabbed in secret by Iago, to stop Rodrigo from revealing their plot to kill Cassio.
Desdemona: Smothered to death by Othello, who thinks that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him.
Emilia: When she realizes Iago’s plan to make Othello think that Desdemona had been unfaithful, she exposes her husband to Othello, and Iago fatally stabs her for it.
Othello: Othello then realizes Desdemona’s innocence and overcome with grief and guilt over killing her, kills himself.
The Life and Death of Julius Caesar “Beware the ides of March”
Julius Caesar: Assassinated by Cassius, Marcus Brutus, Casca, Decius Brutus, Lucius Cinna, Metellus Cimber, Trebonius, and Caius Ligarius in the Capital.
Cinna: An innocent poet who, mistaken for the conspirator Lucius Cinna, is killed by a mob who has formed to drive Caesar’s murderers from Rome.
Portia: Brutus’s wife who, under the stress of his absence from Rome, committed suicide by swallowing hot coals.
Cassius: Asks his servant Pindarus, to kill him after hearing that his best friend Titinius has been captured.
Titinius: It turns out that he was not captured, but upon seeing Cassius’s corpse, kills himself.
Marcus Brutus: After losing his latest battle, he commits suicide by asking another soldier named Strato to hold his sword while Brutus runs onto it.
Romeo and Juliet
Mercutio: Tybalt challenges Romeo to a duel and when Romeo declines, his best friend, Mercutio, agrees to fight Tybalt instead. Tybalt ends up fatally stabbing Mercutio.
Tybalt: Stabbed by Romeo for killing Mercutio.
Count Paris: A suitor to Juliet. He is stabbed by Romeo when he startles the latter at Juliet’s gravesite.
Romeo: Believing that Juliet is dead, Romeo drinks poison and then lays down beside her.
Romeo and Juliet.
Juliet: Wakes up from the deep sleep she was in; the reason everyone thought she was dead. When she sees Romeo’s dead body beside her, she stabs herself with her dagger.
Lady Montague: Romeo’s mother, who we hear died from grief over the death of her son.
Antony and Cleopatra
Fulvia: Third wife of Mark Antony, who prior to the beginning of the play, had rebelled against Octavius and then died.
Enobarbus: He deserts Antony and goes to Octavius’s side. Antony sends Enobarbus his goods rather than confiscating them. Enobarbus is so overwhelmed that he dies from the shame of his disloyalty.
Eros: Antony asks Eros to kill him by running him through with a sword. Unable to do it, Eros kills himself.
Mark Antony: In an attempt at suicide, he manages to only wound himself. He is hoisted up to Cleopatra’s monument and dies in her arms.
Cleopatra: She refuses to surrender. Betrayed and captured by the Romans, Cleopatra learns that Octavius will parade her once he triumphs. She kills herself by getting bitten by an asp.
Iras and Charmian: Cleopatra’s serving-maids who kill themselves after Cleopatra dies.
The Tragedy of Macbeth “Double, double, toil and trouble.”
King Duncan: Stabbed by Macbeth, in order to fulfill the Witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will one day become king.
Two Guards: Framed for Duncan’s death by Lady Macbeth, Macbeth later kills them to keep them from professing their innocence.
Banquo: Killed by three assassins that were hired by Macbeth. They were supposed to kill Macbeth’s son, Fleance, as well, but he escapes. Macbeth arranges for the murder of Banquo and Fleance, because he fears a prophecy that says that Banquo will father a line of kings.
Lady Macduff and her son: When Macbeth learns that Macduff has fled to England, he demands that Macduff’s castle be seized and that he and his family be killed. Macduff is not at the castle when it is seized by his wife. Lady Macduff, and their young son, are killed.
Lady Macbeth: Overcome with guilt for the deeds that she and her husband have committed, Lady Macbeth goes mad and eventually kills herself.
Macbeth and Banquo encounter the three Witches (top) Hamlet and Horatio in the graveyard with Yorick’s skull (bottom).
Young Siward: Killed in combat by Macbeth.
Macbeth: Macbeth was told by the Witches that he cannot be killed by any man of woman born, so he does fear Macduff when he encounters him in battle. Macduff reveals that he was born, not naturally but, “from his mother’s womb, untimely ripp’d”, meaning that he was born by Caesarean section. He then beheads Macbeth, thus fulfilling the Witches’ final prophecy.
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark “To be, or not to be. That is the question.”
King Hamlet: Hamlet’s father, who is killed before the play begins. It is said that he died of a snakebite, but his ghost comes to Hamlet and tells him that he actually died at the hands of his own brother, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, who poured poison into his ear. This way, Claudius could marry Gertrude and become the King.
Polonius: Stabbed by Hamlet, while hidden behind an arras. Hamlet kills Polonius, thinking that it is the king who is hidden there.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Hamlet’s friends who, at the King’s request, escort him to England. Unbeknownst to them, they carry a commandment from the King that orders Hamlet’s death. Hamlet figures out what’s going on and secretly switches the commandment for his death, with one that orders the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet escapes them when they are attacked by pirates. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue onto England and their fate. In the final scene of the play, we learn that indeed, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”
Ophelia: Driven mad by the death of her father, Polonius, at the hands of Hamlet no less, she drowns herself in the nearby brook.
Queen Gertrude: The first of several deaths that occur in the final act. The King has poisoned a cup of wine that he intends to give to Hamlet if he survives his challenge with Laertes. When Hamlet gets a hit on Laertes, the Queen, not knowing that the cup is poisoned, raises the cup to him. The King tries to stop her, but she drinks from it anyhow and dies.
Laertes: He had conspired with the King to kill Hamlet, as he was angry with Hamlet for killing his father, Polonius. He envenomed the tip of his sword and cut Hamlet, there was then a skirmish, in which Laertes and Hamlet switched swords, and Hamlet cut Laertes with the poisoned tip. With his dying breath, he tells Hamlet that the King is to blame and offers peace between himself and Hamlet. He dies shortly after the King does.
King Claudius: Hamlet, enraged at Claudius for everything that he has done, stabs him with the poisoned sword and pours the poisoned wine between his lips, thus killing the King.
Hamlet: By now, the poison from Laertes’s sword is overtaking Hamlet. He calls Horatio to his side and proclaims Fortinbras as his successor, before dying and…”The rest is silence.”
Duke of Cornwall: Killed by a servant of his who is enraged when he sees Cornwall and Regan gouging out Gloucester’s eyes.
Servant who killed Cornwall: Killed by Regan for killing her husband, the Duke of Cornwall.
King Lear and his Fool, as Lear madly rages at the wind.
Oswald: Killed by Edgar, when he tries, on Regan’s orders, to kill Edgar’s father, Gloucester.
Regan: Poisoned by her sister Goneril, when she learns that Regan planned to marry Edmund, who was wooing both sisters at the same time.
Edmund: Wounded by his brother, Edgar, in a trial by combat.
Earl of Gloucester: Edgar announces that Gloucester has died. He believed Edgar to be dead, and then died himself from the shock and joy of learning that Edgar was still alive, once Edgar revealed himself to him.
Goneril: Commits suicide when she realizes that all of her evil plans have failed.
Cordelia: Prior to his death, Edmund had sent Cordelia and Lear off with secret joint-orders from him and Goneril for the execution of Cordelia. As he dies, Edmund tries to stop the order for her death, but he is too late.
Executioner: Killed by Lear when he killed Cordelia.
King Lear: He dies from a combination of grief over Cordelia’s death and all of the hardships he has recently endured.
And yet, of these last three, neither Macbeth, Hamlet, nor King Lear is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, nor the one with the most deaths.
That prestige goes too…
Aaron cutting off Titus’s hand, as the handless Lavinia looks on.
Titus Andronicus is so rarely performed today because of its gory content. In fact, during the Victorian era in England, this play was banned. Understandable, as the play includes stabbings, beheadings, rape, loss of body parts, and a pie reminiscent of something that could have been served by Hannibal Lector.
Alarbus: Oldest son of Queen Tamora. Sacrificed by Titus in order to avenge the deaths of his own sons during the war.
Mutius: Accidentally killed in a scuffle by his own father, Titus.
Bassianus: On the advice of Aaron, Bassianus is killed by Demetrius and Chiron, so that they can rape Lavinia.
Martius and Quintus: Titus’s sons whom Aaron frames for the death of Bassianus. Enraged that they murdered his brother, Saturninus sentences them to death. Aaron then falsely tells Titus, that Saturninus will spare Martius and Quintus. When Titus cuts off his hand and sends it to Saturninus, the latter sends him the severed heads of his sons along with Titus’s own severed hand.
Nurse: Tamora gives birth to a mixed-race baby fathered by the Moor, Aaron. To keep the race of the child a secret, Aaron kills the Nurse.
Demetrius and Chiron: Tamora’s sons who raped Lavinia and then cut off her hands and cut out her tongue so that she could not identify them. But she wrote their names in the dirt using a stick held with her mouth. Because of what they did to his daughter, Titus cuts their throats and drains their blood. He then says he will “play the cook.” He grinds their bones into a powder and bakes them into a pie that he later serves to their mother.
Clown: Titus encounters the Clown and asks him to deliver a message to Saturninus on his behalf for payment. The Clown agrees, but when he delivers the message to Saturninus, the latter has the Clown hanged, and it seems that there is no apparent reason for this.
Lavinia: Titus asks Saturninus if a father should kill his daughter if she has been raped. When Saturninus answers yes, Titus kills Lavinia and tells Saturninus what had happened to her.
Tamora: She did not know what had happened to her sons, Chiron and Demetrius. Titus serves her the pie that he baked her sons into, and she, not knowing of the ingredients, eats it. Once she is done, Titus tells Tamora that her sons had been baked into the pie that she was just eating. Titus then kills Tamora.
Titus Andronicus: Immediately after Titus kills Tamora, Saturninus, who was married to Tamora, kills Titus.
Saturninus: Right after Saturninus kills Titus, then he is killed by Titus’s son, Lucius.
Aaron: For all of his evil deeds and schemes, Aaron is buried chest-deep and left to die of thirst and starvation.
Last, but not least, the three comedies that included character deaths.
Cymbeline “Fear no more.”
Cloten: Guiderius meets Cloten outside of the cave where Guiderius lives with his two sons. Cloten does nothing but insult Guiderius which leads to a sword fight, that ends with Guiderius beheading Cloten.
Queen: She has been slowly wasting away because of the disappearance of her son, Cloten. It is later announced that she has died suddenly, and that, upon dying, she was unrepentant and that she confessed to villainous schemes against her husband and his throne.
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Cleon and Dionyza: Cleon is the governor of Tarsus and Dionyza is his wife. When Pericles leaves to rule Tyre, he leaves Marina, his infant daughter, with the couple. As she grows, however, they realize that Marina is more beautiful than Philoten, the true daughter of Cleon and Dionyza, so the latter decides to murder Marina. Pirates soon kidnap Marina, and when Pericles arrives in Tarsus, Cleon and Dionyza falsely tell him that Marina has died. They are later killed by the people of Tarsus for their plot to kill Marina, and for lying about her fate.
The Winter’s Tale
Mamillius: Died of a wasting sickness and grief that was brought on by the imprisonment of his mother Hermione, by his father Leontes.
Polixenes (seated), Perdita, and Florizel.
Antigonus: Exit, pursued by a bear. One of Shakespeare’s most famous stage directions, and while we don’t see or hear about Antigonus meeting his end, it tells us exactly how he died.
So, while the true cause of Shakespeare’s death may be uncertain, the fate of several of his characters most certainly is not.