How does Shakespeare in “King Lear”, and Sophocles in “Oedipus Rex”, follow the three unities of time, action and place?

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robertwilliam eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The unities were invented by Aristotle in his famous incomplete work the "Poetics", and they work as follows:

  1. The unity of action: the play should have one main story which it follows from start to finish. There should be no subplots (other stories worked into the first one).
  2. The unity of place: the stage should represent only one location, and not require scene changes to shift from place to place. 
  3. The unity of time: the action of a play should take place fluidly, without jumping forward. This is sometimes interpreted as meaning that a play must take place within a time scale of 24 hours.

Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex", which Aristotle believed was the perfect tragedy (though there is some scholarly debate about exactly why) follows these unities. The play takes place in one location, requires no scene changes, and follows a single plot (though, of course, it doesn't seem like that to begin with) - that of Oedipus' realisation of who he is.

"King Lear" of course, does not follow the unities - at all. It has a multiplicity of scenes in a variety of locations from the palace to Dover beach, it takes place over a longer time than 24 hours (difficult to know precisely how much longer, but certainly longer) and - of course - it has two plots: the one which follows Lear's family and the one which follows Gloucester. 

Hope this helps!  

zareenali | Student

One  of  the  most  difficult  plays to analyze with  reference  to the  minor  unities  of  time  and place is  the tragedy of  King Lear.  Unlike  most  of Shakespeare's  plays there  is  not  even  a hint  as  to time,not  a single reference being  made  to  it throughout  the  whole play. Critics  have  estimated  that  the play itself covers  ten days, with  an  interval  between  Act I, scene 2,  and Act I, scenes 3  and  4,  of something less  than  a fortnight,  with the possibility of  an  interval  of  a day or  two  between  Act IV, scene 2,  and  Act IV, scene 3.  This  would  make  the longest period,  including  intervals, that  can  be  allowed  for  this play, one month.  This  can  be  but  a matter  of interpretation and  inference,  however, for  there  is nothing  which  can give definite proof of  it.  To the average reader  the  time  seems  much longer. Such intensity of action, such multiplicity of  events  seems  to  demand many  months  or  even years. As to place, that,  too, is  uncertain.  We are quickly trans ported from palace to palace, from castle  to heath, from  the British  to  the  French camp.  But we scarcely realize  it.  Never do  we stop to ask, " Now just where  is  this palace,  camp, or heath  situated?"  We  do  not know, and  we  do  not  care.  Evidently  Shakespeare himself thought it  of  little consequence, since  he  made  no  effort  to  reveal  it  to  us. In King  Lear,  again, we  have  a  somewhat complicated  plot, but  essential unity is maintained.