Three Unities

From Academic Kids

The three unities or classical unities are rules for drama derived from Aristotle's Poetics. In their neoclassical form they are as follows:

  1. The unity of action: a play should have one main action that it follows, with no or few subplots.
  2. The unity of place: a play should cover a single physical space and should not attempt to compress geography, nor should the stage represent more than one place.
  3. The unity of time: a play should represent an action that takes approximately the same amount of time as the play; years should not pass during the hours a play takes.

Aristotle dealt with the unity of action in some detail, under the general subject of "definition of tragedy", where he wrote:

Now, according to our definition, Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude … As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.

He mentions the unity of time, but only to explain the difference between the epic and tragic forms:

Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in verse of characters of a higher type. They differ, in that Epic poetry admits but one kind of metre, and is narrative in form. They differ, again, in their length: for Tragedy endeavours, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit; whereas the Epic action has no limits of time.

Aristotle does not mention the unity of place. It should be noted that Aristotle was writing after the golden age of Greek drama, and many Greek playwrights, notably Aeschylus, wrote plays that do not fit within these conventions.

However, 16th century Italian and 17th century French critics of the neoclassical movement expanded Aristotle's descriptions to make them into rules for how any play must be structured. French drama of the 17th century, particularly that of Molière, Racine, and Corneille, was highly regular, whereas the contemporary English dramatists in the Elizabethan stage were largely unaware of these strictures.

By the later 17th century, however, English dramatists (under the influence of French criticism picked up by those in exile during the English Interregnum) began to assess their own plays according to these rules. Thus, John Dryden, among many others, compares the "irregular" Shakespeare with the "regular" Ben Jonson in his Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1668), and makes use of the unity of time in this passage criticizing Shakespeare's history plays:

if you consider the Historical Playes of Shakespeare, they are rather so many Chronicles of Kings, or the business many times of thirty or forty years, crampt into a representation of two hours and a half, which is not to imitate or paint Nature, but rather to draw her in miniature, to take her in little; to look upon her through the wrong end of a Perspective, and receive her Images not onely much less, but infinitely more imperfect then the life: this instead of making a Play delightful, renders it ridiculous.

Alexander Pope criticizes the violation of the unities in his Dunciad. In the 1728 version of the poem, the goddess Dulness notes that "Time himself stands still at her command,/ Realms shift their place, and Ocean turns to land" (Dunciad 1728, i, 69–70). Additionally, he notes a violation of unity of action, as tragedy and comedy were mixed. Even Samuel Johnson was not free of applying the unities to drama when judging it in his Prefaces to Shakespeare.

The classical unities were influential in dramatic criticism until Victor Hugo's Ernani (1844); one of the things that made that play so controversial at its debut was its violation of these rule of classicism.

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