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three unities in othello

By fjab7 Jan 21, 2014 1321 Words
In classical drama, plays followed the three unities of place, time and action. Each unity had its own set of specific

rules. Othello follows these unities more closely than many of Shakespeare's plays though the play does contain an

interesting trick involving time. This "double time" as it has come to be called occurs when we consider how long Othello

and Desdemona have been apart before he accuses her of adultery with Cassio. Seemingly, the two have had no chance to be

together, since they did not travel to Cyprus on the same ship.

In accordance with the traditions of classical tragedy, most of Shakespeare's famous tragedies involve the fall of a great

leader. Think of "King" Lear or "Prince" Hamlet. Othello is a different kind of tragic hero, a general, but not a major

figure in the government of the state. In many ways the play is more a tragedy of domestic life rather than of affairs of


Perhaps the play owes as much to the English moral play as to classical precedent. If Othello is the central character,

why does Iago have more lines? Does Othello play a role in his own downfall or is he just a victim of Iago's deceptions?

In today’s class we discussed Aristotle’s three unities which were applied to performance art. In conjunction with our

discussion of Othello we analyzed Shakespeare’s use of the three unities of time, place, and action. While we determined

that Shakespeare’s Othello was not a perfect example of Aristotle’s ideal performance we noted the how Aristotle’s

guidelines could improve the overall experience of a play. When making connections in class to modern theatre and how we

now have the technology to improve staging contributing to the realism of the show, I thought how we also have the

technology to extend the experience of a performance through film. However, as our technology improves we move further and

further away from Aristotle’s unties which he proposed to provide the audience a more realistic experience. Some modern

film plots go beyond imagination and do an excellent job of presenting thrilling stories for an audience but the more

advanced the technology, the more alienated the audience gets from the realm of the film. Filmmakers can make their

stories come to life but it is more challenging to integrate the audience member into the story. A recent film that came

to mind that could be considered a tribute to Aristotle’s three unities is the horror film Silent House. Although I have

not yet seen this film, the trailers describe it as a film inspired by true events and documented in real time. The 88

minutes of film cover the events taking place in a home where the residents are being terrorized by a malevolent force. In

regards to the three unities the film is within the 24 hour time limit, takes place in one single location of the home,

and from what I can tell has a straightforward plot revolving around the horror genre of film. I’m sure Aristotle never

fathomed that we could one day have the filmmaking technology that we do but I’m sure he would acknowledge the

cinematography of Silent House as a decent attempt at achieving a balance between his three unties.

Greek and Latin plays were very different from the native traditions of drama that the young Shakespeare might have come

across if he had seen a mystery cycle, or watched the travelling troupes of actors who came to Stratford, performing

moralities or the various types of drama which developed from them. (Click to read about the Greek theatre* pictured


Greek and Latin drama were strict in form. The stage represented a single place throughout the action; the plot recounted

the events of a single day; and there was very little irrelevant by-play as the action developed. Aristotle described the

drama of an earlier age in his important work On the Art of Poetry; those who followed his precepts called this

disciplined structure the three "unities": unity of place, unity of time and unity of action.

The "Rules"

Neo-classical Renaissance critics codified Aristotle's discussion, claiming that all plays should follow these three


Place. The setting of the play should be one location: in comedy often a street, in Oedipus Rex the steps before the


Time. The action of the play should represent the passage of no more than one day. Previous events leading up to the

present situation were recounted on stage, as Prospero tells Miranda of the events which led to their abandonment on the


Action. No action or scene in the play was to be a digression; all were to contribute directly in some way to the plot.

Compare this structure with the episodic, wide-ranging plots of romantic comedy like Shakespeare's Winter's Tale.---- ------

The three unities come from Aristotle's Poetics, and particularly French interpretations and applications of the Poetics.

Unity of place, unity of time, unity of action are supposedly Aristotle's three unities. I have just looked back over two

English translations of the Poetics, and these "three unities" certainly don't jump out at you. Aristotle does suggest a

play should represent a realistic time period - perhaps one cycle of the sun (one day), and does discuss the desirability

of a play having one unified plot or "action". I suppose he discusses setting the play in one place, though I have not

found that language.

At any rate, whether Aristotle himself thought in terms of the "3 unities", they have been commented endlessly. They have

the following supposed meanings in Aristotle.

Unity of Place: The entire play should be set in one location - for example, the yard at the front entrance to the house

of Agamemnon, which is the only location in the play.

Unity of Time: The whole play should cover a period of not more than 24 hours. For example, in Aeschuylus' Agamemnon,

while the events mentioned in the play took place over a long time period, the actual time period covered by the play is

roughly from pre-dawn to night of one day. The rest of the story is reported in various speeches of the characters or


Unity of Action: This basically means there should be only one plot or story line. A play like Othello, with Othello's

love and marriage, Iago's tinkering with Brabantio, Roderigo, Cassio and Desdemona to destroy Othello; Bianca trying to

make Cassio marry her; and Venice trying to win against the Turkish navy, would seem to be the ultimate contrary to

Aristotle's desire for one single plot line.

Incidentally, since this is a Shakespeare website, be aware that Shakespeare paid little or no attention to the three

unities. Only the Tempest and A Comedy of Errors appear to come close to meeting the unities of time and place, and they

do not appear to meet the unity of action.

At the close of the first act we are left with the impression that it will require some time for Iago to accomplish his purpose. He says that his plan is "after some time to abuse Othello's ear." Later, in Cyprus, the commission having arrived but two days before, Bianca speaks to Cassio and chides him for having been "a week away " from her. And then, when Othello and

his company have been scarcely three days in Cyprus, Lodovico

68 The Sewanee Review

arrives, announcing that Othello is to return and that another official is to succeed him. The third and great unity — that of action — is not so obviously maintained in this play as in Othello. The plot is not quite so direct and uncomplicated, since there are two strands of the story — the feud between the houses and the love of Romeo and Juliet. Nevertheless, the action is strongly unified, as can be shown by a few illustrations.


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