Three Dramatic Unities: Unity of Action, Time, and Place

Three Dramatic Unities

The poetics by Aristotle defines general format of a tragedy. Aristotle also shared his views on two dramatic unities in a tragedy. He focused on two of three unities that are unity of action and unity of time. Aristotle did not mention unity of place in his Poetics. We will discuss all three dramatic unities.

Unity of Action

Unity of action is the basic element of a tragedy. Aristotle focused on unity of action more than on any other unity. Unity of action means the events in a tragedy are coherent and revolves to a single unifies plot/theme having an artistic unity. Aristotle focused on organic unity. In a tragedy, there are a number of incidents and events or episodes. All events of the tragedy should be in a logical sequence like beginning, middle and the end.

In Poetics, Aristotle stated

“Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man’s life which can be reduced to unity: and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. Hence the error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a Heracleid or other poems of a kind. They imagine that as Heracles was one man, the story of Heracles must also be a unity.”

Unity of action remained the main element of any plot in all formats of literature. The success or failure of a tragedy depends on unity of action. If the plot is loose and events are not in proper order, the reader cannot comprehend the main theme of the tragedy.

Unity of Time

Unity of time means a limited period of time that takes a play to be performed on a stage. The actions of a tragedy were performed in a single day during Greek era. Aristotle also stated that tragedy should be limited to a single revolution of a sun. He stated:

“Tragedy endeavors, as for as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or slightly to exceed this limit”.

The above statement reveals that Aristotle did not define a rigid rule but there is little relaxation if it exceeds from a single day.

Later on, during the Renaissance period in France and Italy, the unity of time became a strict agenda for neo-classical critics to confine it to three hours theatre stage performance because the people were not ready to watch a tragedy for a long period of time as Greek were spending up to three days on watching a tragedy.

Unity of Place

Aristotle did not mention unity of place in his Poetics. Same like unity of time, the neo-classical critics formulated this term unity of place. Unity of place means a single place where all events of the tragedy took place. In Greek era, tragedies were performed on a single stage. During that time, there was no print form of plays or recording like the modern era. Moreover, the sole way to perform an act was a fixed stage. Therefore, Aristotle does not mention about unity of place in his poetics.

In later critics focused on unity of place because in medieval literature, the unity of place was violated. Even Shakespeare violated this restriction and he wrote many plays that have different places in their different acts. This was not a rigid restriction as Shakespeare proved in his plays that violation of unity of place has no effects on the overall theme of the play.