Shakespeare's tragedies may be classified in two general groups: those of politics and those of love. The former category includes Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens. The latter includes Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and King Lear. To be sure, these categories overlap. For instance, in Antony and Cleopatra national and international ramifications surround the affair between two great rulers, and in King Lear civil and heavenly strife results from the fissure of the royal family. Furthermore, in all the plays a hero, and sometimes a heroine, battle against overwhelming odds, only to fall through a combination of circumstance and personal weakness. Nonetheless, the distinction between the forms is valid, for in the political tragedies the mainspring of the plot is a desire for power, while in the tragedies of love the fundamental motivation is love itself.
The basic elements of the story of Romeo and Juliet, that of two young lovers tragically lost, was popular in a variety of Renaissance plays and novels. Shakespeare's specific source seems to have been Arthur Brooke poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet ( 1562), but Shakespeare's alterations are many and significant. He compacted months of action into four days, thus bringing a greater urgency to the work. He developed the character of Mercutio. Thematically, he emphasized the purity of the love affair and the boldness of the disobedience against parents. His Juliet is loving and as honest as circumstances permit, and his Romeo is much more than a stereotypical lover. The most significant change is that while Brooke depicts the lovers' deaths as deserved punishment for their sins, Shakespeare glorifies their love, which soars above the world about them.
A few key questions underlie much of the critical commentary on this play. How much of what befalls the title figures is the result of their own character or the character of others? How much is the result of chance, or what may be called "fate?" If the dominant force is destiny, then the work becomes largely a portrait of situational irony, not a tragedy. Furthermore, do these title fig-