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A Study of the Three Unities in Shakespeare's Representative Plays Author(s): B. Louise Schafer Source: The Sewanee Review, Vol.

25, No. 1 (Jan., 1917), pp. 65-73 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 06/08/2013 08:21
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Throughout the individual the ages there has been unceasing conflict between and society. From the time when primitive group this struggle has been obvious. dominant A ration

spirit was alizing element habitual

has gradually in opposition to the developed to custom and merely submission and arbitrary passive in individualistic But, in spite of the great advance authority. the struggle is not yet ended. of conceptions, Every aspect
life ? economic, social, political, religious?reveals a


contention Free-Thinkers,

between and


two elements.

Critics Higher and orthodox servatives, Standpatters, issue still remains. Many reaching years even

Radicals, Progressives, exist alongside of Con-^ The religious adherents.

evolutionary demanded dividualist you


became in scope, extended ago this contention the sacred realm of art. Society, representing decried the capricious and ipse dixit, judgment, art, law, government, saying, "Rob art of enduring, most tradition. The in its personality, and beauti transcendently

for great


responded, from it its most


Yet even this Now, of all arts the drama is most democratic. strife. and anti-individualistic the individualistic has not escaped and have demanded freedom tendencies More modern larger initiative ancient cause modern The in opposition There drama. to the limitation and restriction of the are still those with us, however, who, be forms of this art, demand a

of the early of the greatness imitation of its lesser virtues. form of

of the this early drama was a logical. expression The classic drama, as found Greeks. life of its founders?the clear and simple and is exquisitely in Sophocles, for example, or an Ajax, an An beautiful." Antigone, dipus, "austerely a play us. Yet life such and the still charms very delights
represented, the very nature of its production, made it com

limited in scope, with few actors and little change of paratively scene. The fact that each play was one of a trilogy made the 5

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Review drama, and of necessity

less than that of a modern length much the action was strongly unified.

formulated his theory of the drama according Later, Aristotle to the art which he best knew ? that of the Greeks. In so doing he laid down a necessary the ages?unity it as "an organic unity?an defined inward principle which re veals itself in the form of an outward whole." to It is opposed not to but the idea of manifoldness and variety, and plurality, demands and in a fixed order that the parts should be "arranged none can so none that related be removed, structurally without the the with Then, disturbing transposed, organism." drama still in mind, he added, not as a definite rule but that controlling one throughout law which has been as recognized of action. He


as a commentary on Greek so far as endeavors art, "Tragedy a single revolution or but to to confine of the itself sun, possible to that limit." exceed slightly Italians, with their eternal Aristotle's "mechanics," sug literary emphasis a was to to in time rule. definite Twenty regard changed gestion the limit. Nor was this all. Accepting four hours was made as a con of action," of "unity the desirability demanding of time," they deduced still another "unity" sequence "unity upon form and This law demanded that the scene be laid of place. at least in one town in one place ; or, if that were not possible, or community. the of At hands these critics, then, formal per the price. fection was to be attained, whatever Individualism law?that was entirely demanded. As modern prohibited, and exclusive loyalty to tradition At the hands of the French and

initiative developed, the wisdom of ad however, two to to of the unities be the last three questioned. began hering could not endure the arbitrary restrictions of conception Freedom "place." of judging the relative merits of these two best method to apply the pragmatic test. is probably Can the in schools more can be certain art? No criterion dividualist great produce The gained, greatest First then, than by a study of the representative of all dramatists, William Shakespeare. of all, let us look at his great masterpiece, plays Othello. of that No of "time" and

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The Three one can doubt

Unities that

in Shakespeare''s the author



67 the of

is here moved

action. characters


by his sure dramatic is indissolubly united with

scene, every act,

instinct, his conception


by primarily the conception

is totally

of dramatic



trolled by the one idea of the drama. related so that none can be removed, the organism." disturbing A

Each none


is "structurally without transposed,

at the illustration may suffice. The early scenes, single to at Venice, time of the appointment the commission reveal, first the setting and background of the story ; second, the char acters of the leading participants as to the final outcome,?the
The same concentration, purpose,

in the action statement



; third, a suggestion the exciting force.

coherence is main


even the play. Take the throughout minor scenes from the drama and you will find the action retarded and confused, for each brings us one step farther toward the ultimate goal. tained in each of of action, then, is maintained. Unity We the unities of time and place? a few hours are transported no definite allowance but But is the same true begin to Cyprus. made for time. at Athens, and A long journey Still, we do least, in the



it in the indeed, we fail to perceive are we? We And should why play. living with Othello and are not really ourselves. Since this ideal and Desdemona, a are of the is mental world one, place and time simply products acted

is taken, not wonder;

in Cyprus, within hours after her arrival thirty-six Again, we when is smothered?that examine the play Desdemona is, element in with the time mind. Yet many things minutely, estimation of time. the illustrations logical long Frequent imply recur. One or two may serve to indicate it. of this implication At that He ear." the close it will says of the first some require that his plan in Cyprus, Later, act we are left with the impression time for lago to accomplish his purpose. some is "after time to abuse Othello's

the commission having arrived but two to Bianca and chides him for having Cassio before, speaks days from her. And and been "a week away" then, when Othello his company have been scarcely three days in Cyprus, Lodovico

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68 arrives, announcing official is to succeed



Review is to return and that another

that Othello him.

to explain such seeming critics have sought inconsist Many encies by the "historic" and "dramatic" time theories. Elabor ate discussions of fine points have been formulated showing just why time" here and planned "long Shakespeare implication while in action is maintained. there, rapid reality comparatively Like many another genius, Shakespeare suffers from the admir ation of too devoted in this critics. purpose simple minor unity treatment for some Without seeking of time, may we not accept, an individualistic indifference Absorbed to cheat the place take care of hidden as the of to such

and probable cause, rules and precepts? of action, he

in the maintenance themselves.

let other matters all devices

surrendering Frankly a bare stage with no scenery, would have it. imagination The same was most

the senses, he wrote for as your to be pictured

true of time. that it, of all things, is Knowing to the he found it even less trouble imagination, compliant some than the element A simple of place. law of psychology the fact that months years which pass enlivened in contemplation, be compressed into the an equal time marked events by many and

proclaims by little briefest

action may, space, while seems to stretch out indefinitely. to care for place In this play, then, allowing the imagination and time, unity of action becomes his one controlling principle. one considers the work of Shakespeare's When contemporaries, the boldness and of his becomes initiative more in disregarding the unities Marlowe

of time

striking. place Although placed there were not lacking upon freedom, emphasis unprecedented ex such a Sackville, who demanded writers Peele, and Greene, to classical tradition. Ben Jonson, clusive adherence the great of the classic school, defiantly opposed the romantic protagonist the dramatic unities in all of his plays. spirit and employed to notice Shakespeare's In sharp contrast it is interesting as it appears in Romeo further treatment of the unities and Juliet. We again find the time element the old interpretation however, Obviously, must be compact within ing that the time somewhat confusing. of this unity as mean a single of revolution

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The Three


in Shakespeare1

s Representative




the sun is utterly five days.

speare intended and leaves no distinct that And the action why are we not in this regard? We little need As

for the action probably disregarded, occupies But when we see the play acted, as Shake we should, the time element becomes very vague impression. months occupies first thought years rather than days. troubled by our lack of definite knowledge are living with Romeo and Juliet. When and fear and pity" there is We infer at

our emotions

are being "purged through for sordid time conceptions. Shakespeare almost adhered the action

to place,

to Mantua and Shakespeare de the misconveyed from sired us to see him there receiving message Friar Lawrence. Of course we could, after the old Greek plan, or some other have received word of this through a messenger deus have asked of someone might unusually well versed in the affairs of the heavens and the earth, "And in what wise did the evil news swoop down upon him? A chorus ex machina.

by having liberally interpreted But Romeo was later banished


to this unity law, as round Verona.


to us, who share thy pain, how it befell." But who cares to resort to such a formal, arbitrary makeshift at Mantua with his for him to behold Romeo when it is possible own eyes ? And Shakespeare, the artist, gave us a truly artistic portrayal?by eagerly back Then we accompany taking us to Mantua. no sense to Verona with because of rebellion him the

unity of place has been disregarded. not so obviously of action?is The third and great unity?that The plot is not quite so in this play as in Othello. maintained since there are two strands of the and uncomplicated, direct story?the Juliet. shown by feud between the houses the action and the love of Romeo and Nevertheless, a few illustrations. is strongly unified, as can be the The- feud makes necessary

secret marriage of the lovers ; it brings about the death of Tybalt in turn gives rise at the hands of Romeo; the killing of Tybalt the feud again causes Juliet to be pow to Romeo's banishment; when Paris begins his erless to speak of her former marriage in turn causes her to drink Friar Lawrence's sleeping suit;?this brings about the death of herself, Romeo, potion and ultimately the feud is ended and the houses reconciled. and Paris, whereby

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70 The There since matic





is but one plot, then, the short humorous Consequently difficult

irrelevant matter, and no strictly bits serve their purpose of dra this play, also, maintains unity of


to analyze with to reference plays the minor unities of time and place of King is the tragedy even a not Lear. is Unlike most of Shakespeare's there plays One of the most as to time, not a single reference being made to it through out the whole play. Critics have estimated that the play itself covers ten days, with an interval between Act I, scene 2, and Act less than a fortnight, with I, scenes 3 and 4, of something hint of an interval of a day or two between Act the possibility IV, scene 2, and Act scene make This would the 3. IV, longest intervals, that can be allowed for this play, one including period, month. of interpretation and infer can is which definite ence, however, nothing give proof of it. To the average reader the time seems much longer. Such of events seems to demand of action, such multiplicity intensity for there
months or even years.


can be but a matter


are quickly trans to place, that, too, is uncertain. We to to from castle from the heath, palace, ported from palace to the French But we scarcely realize it. Never British camp. " is this palace, camp, or Now do we stop to ask, just where We do not know, and we do not care. Evi heath situated?" As it of little consequence, himself thought dently Shakespeare since he made no effort to reveal it to us. In King Lear, plot, complicated again, we have a somewhat The several strands of the but essential unity is maintained. and Regan; and Edmund, Goneril, Gloucester, story,?Lear, war the and Cordelia Goneril, Edmund; Regan, story; Edgar; all inextricably bound up together, and and King Lear,?are the all move toward the final tragedy. unity-of Consequently action In place law is not disregarded. of Shakespeare's another would have been Hamlet, masterpieces, unity of had not the scene been maintained to a plain in Denmark. act from Elsinore confusion. a week In reality the or ten days, but, as

in the fourth changed As to time, again there is evident whole action probably occurs within

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The Three


in Shakespeare1

s Representative

Plays Two

71 or

usual, many things give us the impression of long time. three illustrations will reveal this more clearly. Horatio the been funeral is introduced some inAct affairs both in Denmark of the in and outside late king. In Hamlet

I, scene 1, as one familiar with all of Denmark. He has evidently since he came to attend he a the is the next scene, however, for the first time after

two months


as greeting we always



think of Hamlet

continually But, as we

ten days. been accustomed largely not seem in what

hesitating have seen, there Hence

as a procrastinating youth, and postponing his work of vengeance. the entire action takes place in a week or cannot The be so great delay as we length of time is seen If a week or have to be

to think.

estimated sufficient

by impression. to us for Hamlet's would and

a predicament he observed time-unity four hours !

development have placed Shakespeare an us action lasting given

ten days does of character, us had twenty

the plot of this play appears somewhat Although complicted more in comparison with some of Shakespeare's and simple as is maintained. direct The dramas, usual, essential unity are not affairs with Polonius, Ophelia, and Laertes Fortinbras, mere underplots but are identical with work of vengeance. then, ever observe the central theme of the in is play?Hamlet's Did Shakespeare, a single drama? compressed island and complicated. Shakespeare more probable to a portrayal

all of the three unities The time here mentioned is simple

In only one, The Tempest. into three hours, the only place the water surrounding it, the plot Yet even here restrict did not in which

is an and un

it may be safely conjectured that the drama to the unities. Rather

story itself appeared best adapted Like the three unities were employed. a our modern lived in wise, had Shakespeare age and presented the unities as un have employed drama he would undoubtedly or Ibsen's Ghosts, in the House, used in The Servant consciously is it that the they would have been best suited to such a rep simply because as these plays demand. resentation as a very are fond of regarding "un We Shakespeare

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72 knowable" and

The reticent

Sewanee creature

Review who never his own expressed But of his characters.

them in the mouths thoughts by putting would it be illogical to think that it is not Hamlet but Shake in Act to himself who the the instructions speare gives players scene even more it be Would 2, of Hamlet? III, illogical to call this Shakespeare's sane view of all art?

that may give "You must acquire and beget a temperance .... it [the smoothness. play] be "Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion tutor: to to the action the the word suit action the ; word, your that you derstep not the modesty with this special observance,
of nature."


be his tutor," pay let his "own discretion Shakespeare to and refusing to heed the demands of form little arbitrary ing be bound by the shackles of conventionality. in him we admire this attitude of independence, prob Though

it ourselves. We ably very few of us are yet ready to adopt ones stand somewhat appalled before fearless initiative. mediocre or an of a Shakespeare We the boldness could never achieve
Emerson and say, "Leave me alone. Do not teach me out of

Leibnitz man But

or Schelling and I will learn it for myself." since such a doctrine, it is that we do not advocate it would lead to little was not less than anarchy. limited by the a certain



for ordinary of medi

ocrity. aloof from mere "o'erstep instinct caused

Shakespeare His artist's


guide which kept him and hence he did not whims, impressionistic his sure dramatic of nature." Likewise the modesty him to reject mere formalism which null? dead per icily regular, splendidly to bless the It was his supreme privilege cold, passive

soul was

is "faultily faultless, no more." fection, world with

living, vital art. lived reminds us of a man who individualistic Such power of Unusual the Elizabethans. centuries before the age many of all laws of physical bodily strength rendered him independent it was sought to confine him as other men were When restraint. the doors of the gate "took Samson imprisoned, of Gaza, and the two posts, and went away with of the them city of bar and

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The Three all, and


Unities them

in Shakespeare's





up to the top of an hill which

is before

in intellectual strength, Shakespeare, unparalleled the bars, posts, and doors of the city of tradition upon his hill?the and bore them to the top of another shoulders, great of and rules to which The restraints mountain genius. height Likewise took other men were subject became obedient to his will. B. Louise
Hillsdale, Michigan.


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