The dramatic unities are three: the unity of Action, the unity of Time, and the unity of Place. Ever since the Renaissance two reasons were advanced in support of the three unities. First, that Aristotle had enjoined them, and secondly, that they are necessary to create a dramatic illusion and in this way to make the drama credible and convincing. During the Pseudo-classical era, the unities were made into rigid rules and their observance was considered essential.
The Unity of Action
The three unities were deduced from Aristotle, but the Greek philosopher has stressed only one Unity, the unity of Action. The Action of tragedy, he says in The Poetics, must be a “complete whole”, and it must have, “organic unity”. Aristotle compares the plot of a tragedy to a living organism and says that just as in a living organism every part is harmoniously related to each other, and to the whole, so in tragedy also the various incidents and events must bear a proportionate and harmonious relationship. Just as in a living organism, no part is superfluous, and each part is essential for the life of the organism, and cannot be removed without causing injury to it, so also in the plot of a tragedy every events and every incident must be necessary essential. There should be nothing superfluous, it should not be possible to take out any character or incident, without causing any injury to the plot. Digressions and episodes may be introduced, but then they should be integral to the plot, they must be made an integral part of the plot, and must contribute to the effect which the dramatist wants to create. It should not be possible even to transpose them, i.e., to shift them from one place to another. Aristotle regards, “episodic plots as the worst”, for they are plots in which the episodes have not been properly interlinked with the main design, and do not form an organic part of the whole. Failure in episodizing is the worst fault, for it is a violation of the unity of Action.
It is the unity of Action which makes the plot intelligible, coherent, and individual. There are a number of incidents, events, and situations, but they are so united, and so related structurally, that they form a complete whole. These various events are united in two ways. First, they are connected with each other by the law of necessity and probability. They are probable and necessary under the circumstances, and they follow each other logically and inevitably. Thus there is a logical link-up of the various events, a sequence of cause and effect binding them together. Secondly, they are unified by the fact that they all move forward towards a common goal, the Catastrophe aimed at by the dramatist. The beginning leads logically and inevitably to the end, without any unnecessary digressions and episodes coming in between, without there being any detached scenes or incidents. In this way, there is unity in variety. There are a number of events and scenes, but they all converge to a single point, logically and inevitably. Digression and episodes may be permitted in the Epic, but the drama is a compact whole from which all superfluity is rigorously excluded. The tragedy, therefore, has greater concentration, greater coherence, so greater effectiveness.
The tragic action or the tragic plot is a process of change, a change from happiness to misery. All such events, which do not contribute logically and inevitably to this process of change, must be rigorously eliminated. The artist need not follow the chronological sequence of events, he may transpose events and incidents to reveal with greater clearance and coherence the onward march of the hero toward his doom. Many other events may befall the hero, but if they are not relevant to the end, they are to be excluded from the plot.
There might be a large variety of incidents, but Aristotle rules out the plurality of Action. There should be one Action or Plot, and not two Actions. Thus he is against the introduction of a sub-plot. Similarly, he is against a double-ending, i.e., a tragic end for some of the characters, and a happy end for the others. Plurality of action and such double-end distract attention and weaken the tragic effect. They defeat the very purpose of tragedy, which is to arouse the emotions of pity and fear. Aristotle thus rules out tragi-comedy and the introduction of comic relief. In this respect, it should be noted that Elizabethan drama, more particularly the plays of Shakespeare, have demonstrated, without a shadow of doubt, that the introduction of comic relief increases the entertainment value of tragedy, and heightens the effectiveness of the Catastrophe by contrast. Tragi-comedies, are nearer to nature; tears and smiles, joys and sorrows, mingle in life, and so they must also mingle in drama. Aristotle’s rigid separation of the comic and the tragic, the gay and the serious, is not justified.
Unity of Time
Aristotle has stressed only the unity of Action, he says nothing about the other two unities. However, the Unities of Time and Place have also been derived from him. Aristotle’s, comment on the length of tragedy gave rise during the neo-classic period to the doctrine of Unity of Time. According to this doctrine, which became literally a critical dogma in seventeenth-century France and in Restoration England, when Aristotle asserts, that, “tragedy attempts as far as possible, to remain within one revolution of the sun”, (meant a twenty-four-hour day or the twelve-hour period of daylight) he is referring to the time covered by the dramatic action of the play. This interpretation accords with the rationalist bias of neo-classic critics. Spectators, they argued, would not believe in the reality of an action that compressed several days, (or, in the case of Shakespearean drama, several years) into a three-hour drama. And if the spectators did not believe in the reality of the action, the tragedy would not have its proper effect.
The tendency of the twentieth-century critics has been to reject the notion that Aristotle formally advocated Unity of Time in the Poetics. In the first place, not all Greek tragedies confine their action to a “single revolution of the sun”, in this sense. Agamemnon and Eumenides are well-known examples of plays that cover several days.
Unity of Place
The Unity of Place Aristotle does not even mention once. While comparing epic and tragedy, he merely says that the epic may narrate several actions taking place simultaneously at several places, but this is not possible in the tragedy which does not narrate but represents through action. This chance remark led Renaissance and Neo-classic critics to hoist the unity of place on Aristotle, and on the basis of his authority to make it into a rigid rule for dramatic composition. It was said that in the drama there should be no change of place, and even if the scene changes it must not be too great a distance. It was laid down that it should be confined to the limits of a single city. No doubt, the Unity of Place was generally observed by the Greek Tragedians for several obvious reasons. There were no drop scenes and no division into Acts and scenes, and so naturally the action was continuous and unbroken. Moreover, as Lessing suggests, “the limitations of Time and Place were necessary in order that the Chorus might not seem to be kept too long away from their homes.” The same group of persons could not be transported to different places, too distant from each other, without violating dramatic illusion too flagrantly. Whatever may have been the practice of the Greek drama, Aristotle does not prescribe the Unity of Place, and Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate that the unity of atmosphere is not violated and the dramatic illusion can be kept up, even when the scene shifts from Sicilia to Bohemia, or from Venice to Cyprus. Further, the Shakespearean drama is entirely free from that narrow and cramping effect of the unities, which mars a number of French plays.
Unity of Action, which Aristotle rightly emphasized, is the higher and controlling law of the drama. If the unity of Action is maintained, the other two unities will take care of themselves. The Unities of Time and Place are only of a secondary and purely derivative value.