To What Extent Does Shakespeare Challenge the Aristotelian Views on the Unities in Othello?

Topics: Othello, Iago, William Shakespeare Pages: 5 (1675 words) Published: December 16, 2012
The unities were part of Aristotle’s dramatic theory, Poetics, which was interpreted by neoclassical playwrights to give structure to a tragedy. The first rule, the unity of action, was that the plot must consist of one main action, and only subplots that are necessary. The second rule, the unity of place, meant a play should cover only a single space, and the stage should not represent more than one place. The unity of time was the last rule, and it said that the action in a play should take place over no more than twenty four hours. In Shakespeare’s Othello, arguments as to how far the unities have been broken are often discussed.

These arguments have been shown in the unity of time, and critics – such as A.C. Bradley – have doubted the faithfulness of Shakespeare. This argument is shown in the time period of Act I, on Othello's wedding night where they leave for Cyprus, and when Act II starts they have landed, and on the night of the arrival the marriage is consummated and Cassio is demoted. Although the ship journey was not given a specific time, the actual action takes place in roughly twenty four hours, which is already the suggested time a tragedy should take.

Acts III, IV and V seem linked by events such as Lodovico’s arrival and how Othello requests them to ‘sup together’[1], presumably on the same night. These acts could be construed as all being done in a day, because there is no time indication given between scenes. For example, in the morning, Iago has poisoned Othello's mind using the handkerchief, and then it is presumed later in the same day Othello witnesses Iago and Cassio talk about Bianca. As Lodovico’s arrival and the attempted assassination on Cassio, and finally Othello's suicide all clearly happen one after another on the same day, it suggests that as long as Iago's conversations with Othello and then Cassio happen on the same day, then overall the last three Acts happen on the same day. If these acts are all assumed to have happened on the same night, it suggests that overall the acts in Othello have taken place of three nights, which means Shakespeare has paid some notice to the unity of time, but still broken it. This idea of Othello killing Desdemona within two days of his consummation contradicts many of the time indications given in the dialogue. Shakespeare shows this through Bianca, in Act III, where she complains to Cassio “What, keep a week away?”[2], which informs the audience that the characters have been in Cyprus for at least a week. However, as Bianca would be annoyed at Cassio for staying away, she may be exaggerating slightly on the time lapsed. Othello’s quotation “yet Iago knows that she with Cassio hath the act of shame a thousand times committed; Cassio confess'd it”[3] implies that they may have been in Cyprus for more than a few days; however, as Othello's source of information is ‘honest’ Iago, there is obvious exaggeration in the “thousand times”, as Shakespeare would have written Iago the line to deceive Othello. With this in mind, Shakespeare seems to have chosen to completely ignore the unity of time in Othello.

The unity of place has been broken by Shakespeare by having scenes in Venice and Cyprus, but they have contributed to the symbolism of the play perfectly, and it could be viewed that without the Act in Venice, the play would not have been considered as one of the 4 great tragedies written by Shakespeare. Venice is portrayed in the play to be a safe base for Othello, in which he is a confident, controlling figure. Venice is symbolised as a comfortable place for all the characters. The classes are clear, and there is evidence of passion and sexual tension, such as Desdemona's marriage behind her father’s back to a man who – even though accepted as an equal by the Duke – is not accepted by other figures in society, displayed by Brabantio’s open disgust to her marrying a moor.[4] The change of scene to Cyprus is a perfect comparative device used by...
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