How does Medea express the classical unities of time, action, and place?
The three classical unities, as defined by Aristotle in Poetics, his treatise on Greek tragedy, are:
- PLACE—meaning that the setting never changes; each play would have only one set in place for the duration with no changes between scenes
- TIME—meaning that the entire play takes place over a period of no more than twenty-four hours
- ACTION—meaning that the play follows only one main action or plot event with few or no subplots
Euripides's Medea adheres to all of these parameters. The play is set in Corinth, specifically right outside of Jason and Medea's house, and this setting never changes. The timeline of the play fits within the course of a twenty-four-hour period, with any relevant information from before the start of this period conveyed not through action or flashback but through monologues delivered about the past. Finally, the action of the play centers on one singular event: every plot point of the play is driven by Medea's desire for revenge.
The Greek idea of the Classical Unities means simply that, as Aristotle states in Part VII of his Poetics, the story must center around a single action which occurs in a single place over the course of a single day. The three unities are time, place and action. In this play, everything takes place in Jason’s palace in the course of one day—Medea learns he will soon be returning with his new bride, which makes her furious. Jason does not take Medea's fury seriously, instead simply telling her to expect his new bride at the palace later that day. At this point, Medea decides to take drastic action, and by that evening she’s poisoned the bride, knifed her children, and left for Athens.
The three unities work neatly for the purposes of drama because they help contain the story in a way which can easily be represented on stage, without recourse to complicated sets or costume changes made necessary by changes in chronology.
The three unities refer to action, time and place: The action should be one whole and take place over one day and in one place.
In this play, Medea's husband, Jason, has abandoned her and their children for another woman. Afraid that she might harm the children in her jealous rage, her father has banished her from Corinth. She has begged for and been granted just one more day to prepare. There, in a nutshell, is how Euripides incorporate the unities into this play. The action is Medea's revenge against Jason. It takes place in one city, Corinth, over the course of one day.
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