What is the theory of three unities? How does Shakespeare violate the three unites and how does Johnson defend him?

Expert Answers
rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The theory of three unities was established by Aristotle in his work On the Art of Poetry and held sway in early modern Europe because of the work of classical humanists during the Renaissance.

Aristotle said that any drama needed to feature unity of place (i.e., it should have only one setting). Shakespeare clearly violates this principle in many of his dramas. Macbeth, for example, begins on a battlefield and has scenes in Macbeth's castle and England, among other places. Second, Aristotle thought that a drama should only portray events over the course of a single day (this is unity of time). Many of Shakespeare's plays, Romeo and Juliet, for example, take place over the course of several days or even longer. Finally, unity of action suggests that the plot should not include any digressions or subplots. Some of Shakespeare's plays (Macbeth, for example) could be said to follow this principle, but others, like King Lear, are quite complex, featuring a number of intriguing subplots. 

Johnson acknowledges several of Shakespeare's shortcomings, but defends his decision to violate the unities. As to unity of place, Johnson denies that the audience has to see the changing scenes as believable. Playgoers, he says, "are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players." Similarly, he argues that audiences are perfectly capable of imagining that a significant amount of time has elapsed between events in Shakespeare's plays. These lapses, in any case, are usually between acts anyway. "In contemplation," he writes, "we easily contract the time of real actions," and "a lapse of years is as easily conceived as a passage of hours." Indeed, Johnson portrays Shakespeare's willingness to shed structural norms as a virtue, because, as he says, the purpose of a great play is "to copy nature and instruct life." In any case, Johnson believes it possible that Shakespeare did not even know about Aristotle's unities when he wrote his plays.

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

 Aristotle's theory of the three unities states that a play should embrace unities of action, time and place. Unity of action means that a play should follow one plot, without meandering off into subplots. Unity of time means that a play should take place within a 24-hour period, and unity of place means that a play should take place in one spot, not move from place to place. Shakespeare repeatedly violated the three unities by including subplots in his plays, by writing plays that spanned more than 24 hours and by having scenes in his plays take place in different spots, such as, Johnson notes, moving from Cyrpus to Venice in the same play. 

Johnson defends Shakespeare by saying that he does follow unity of action by writing plays that have a clear beginning, middle and end. Johnson then said that, as for time and place, people know they are watching a play and can easily adjust to different times and places. Once people engage imaginatively, they can continue to do so. As Johnson put it,  “He that can take the stage at one time for the palace of the Ptolemies, may take it in half an hour for the promontory of Actium. Delusion, if delusion be admitted, has no certain limitation.” 

Johnson also defends Shakespeare by stating that what determines whether we "believe in" a play is not so much adherence to unities or to the "facts" of history but the emotional integrity of the play. In other words, what is important is how relatable or relevant the play is to our own lives: “The reflection that strikes the heart is not, that the evils before us are real evils, but that they are evils to which we ourselves may be exposed.” Johnson also defends the plays as "pleasurable" and says that their pleasure outweighs any violations of unities. 

Read the study guide:
Preface to Shakespeare

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question