Fate of William Shakespeare's title characters

Unfortunately for Shakespeare’s eponymous characters, they are almost three times more likely to die by the end of their stories, with murder as the most common ending. All of Shakespeare's tragedies and historical plays are named after one of their protagonists, all of whom are based on real historical figures or already-existing legends. Nine of the title characters meet this end; Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Henry VI and Richard II are all stabbed to death, Richard III is killed and Macbeth is beheaded in battle, Hamlet is both poisoned and stabbed in a duel, and King John is poisoned.

"This is thy sheathe"

Along with these murders, another six suffer violent deaths, by choosing to take their own lives. In Romeo and Juliet, (arguably the most famous Shakespearean deaths) Romeo finds what he believes is Juliet's dead body, and in his grief he takes his own life with poison; when Juliet awakens to find her lover's body she too decides to follow him by stabbing herself. Very similarly, in Antony and Cleopatra, Antony stabs himself as he falsely believes that Cleopatra has died, and when Cleopatra learns of his death, she also decides to take her own life by having a snake bite her. For Othello, when he learns that he has falsely killed his wife for being unfaithful, he chooses to stab himself. The sixth suicide is of Timon of Athens, and is arguably accidental, as he dies of thirst and malnutrition while in self-imposed exile.

Legends and prophecies

Through artistic license, Shakespeare included much of the already existing myths and legends surrounding his characters, in order to embellish and give color to his stories. In Shakespeare's Henry IV, the title character was prophecized to die in Jerusalem, however Shakespeare twists this so that he passed away while in the Jerusalem Chamber in Westminster Abbey (one further example of Shakespeare twisting a prophecy to bring about a title character's death is in Macbeth). Another recurring theme in Shakespeare's plays is where characters die of broken hearts, such as King Lear, whose daughter's death overwhelms him and causes the grief-stricken Lear to collapse and die suddenly. Of the 23 characters who give their names to Caesar's works, just six of them survive to the end of their stories, although many of their friends and foes often die along the way.

Fate of title characters in plays* by William Shakespeare

Character's fateNumber of characters
Murdered9
Commits suicide6
Survives6
Dies of natural causes2
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Source

Release date

October 2019

Region

United Kingdom

Survey time period

1589-1611

Supplementary notes

For the purposes of this statistic, Henry IV and Henry VI are considered just one play each.
This statistic does not include unnamed title characters, such as "Antonio - The Merchant of Venice" or "Katharina - The Taming of the Shrew."
Murdered - Coriolanus, Hamlet, Henry VI, Julius Caesar, King John, Macbeth, Richard II, Richard III, Titus Andronicus.
Commits Suicide - Antony, Cleopatra, Othello, Romeo, Juliet, Timon of Athens (dies in self-imposed exile).
Survives - Cymbeline, Henry V, Henry VIII, Pericles, Triolus, Cressida
Dies naturally - Henry IV, King Lear (dies of grief/natural causes).

Release date is date of extraction.

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