Dryden’s Views on the Unities in his Essay

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      The unities. The three unities are the unity of time which restricts the duration of the action or the story presented in the drama to a day and lays down the rule that it should never exceed it; unity of place which forbids the change of location or scene or the place where the events depicted in the drama are considered to have taken place (different houses or localities in the same town or village are allowed); and unity of action which implies that one complete plot should dominate the full drama and subordinate incidents or episodes should be avoided.

      Aristotle and the unities. The Neo-classicists who elaborated on these unities assert that Aristotle set forth these rules in his Poetics. A careful study of Aristotle’s works will, however, reveal that only the unity of action was actually insisted upon by him. As far as unity of time is concerned he makes a passing reference to it in the words: “Tragedy endeavors, as far as possible, to confine its action within the limits of a single revolution of the sun or nearly so, but the time of the epic action is indefinite.” It can be asserted that the unity of place has never been mentioned by the Greek rhetorician.

      Dryden’s defense of the English dramatists violation of the unities. Unity of action is not marred by introducing a large number of persons and events. Of course all the incidents should be made to tend towards the principal object of the play with proper inter-connection. Early English dramatists strictly adhered to the rules but with the advent of the romantic drama, playwrights felt that deference to rules made for unnecessary restriction.

      Why the ancient playwrights insisted on the unity of time was because of the natural belief that the time of the feigned action should be proportionate to the time of actual occurrence. A theatrical representation of a few hours should not be supposed to cover a great deal of time. This proportion should be observed in the different acts of the drama as well, i.e. one act should not take time out of proportion to the time taken by remaining acts.

      The reason for the insistence on the unity of place lay in the fact that one stage could not be conceived of as representing places separated from one another by great distances. The variation of painted scenes could contribute to the imagination and fancy that they were different places; however, it was better to represent places not far from one another. Crites observes that French playwrights should be commended for their observance of the unity of place. They never changed a scene in the middle of an act. The stage was never empty although the players may come and go. Corneille called this the continuity of joining scenes.

      As for the unity of action the Greek and Roman critics and writers meant by the term, one great and complete action. All the other things should be subservient to the main action. Two equally important and eagerly pursued actions will necessarily spoil the unity of the literary or dramatic production.

      Crites criticizes all those modems plays where a man’s whole life is attempted to be presented and scenes are represented in more countries than the map can show. He praises the Greek dramatists like Aristophanes, Sophocles etc. to admire whom, one ought to understand them better. If at all anything in their plays appears flat to the modems, it should be because the latter are not fully aware of the various peculiar ancient customs.

      Eugenius or Lord Buckhurst criticizes the remarks of Crites and pleads the case of the modem English dramatists. He makes it clear that the plots of the plays of the older Greek writers were narrow. Even their ‘acts’ were of less compass than the ‘scene’ of a modem play.

      John Dryden expresses his own views in the guise of Neander in the essay. He does not deny that the French playwrights were successful in maintaining regularity in their plays. However, according to him, English plays manifest superior liveliness and unrivaled variety in their themes. This would have been impossible if the English writers had not shown some independence in regard to the dictum of the Greek writers about the observance of the three unities. The fact that they did not slavishly imitate their Greek predecessors had brought additional credit for them.

      Comparison of Dryden’s views with Sidney’s. The unities obsessed English critics from as early as Philip Sidney. In his Apology for Poetry, Sidney is for rigid observance of the three unities and he condemns English drama for violating the rules in this regard. Dryden, as has been observed, is more liberal. Perhaps, if Sidney had seen Shakespeare’s plays, he too might have made concessions for the exceptions to the rule. Dr. Johnson, it may be noted, is closer to Dryden in his defence of Shakespeare’s violation of the unities of time and place; for unity of action is certainly observed by the great dramatist even though with an immense variety of characters and incidents. In the violation of unities of time and place, indeed, Shakespeare comes closer to nature, according to Johnson.

      Conclusion. The discussion underscores Dryden’s liberal classicism. Beginning with Longinus in the first century and ending with Matthew Arnold in the nineteenth century there have been many critics, and decidedly Dryden occupies a unique place among them. He respects the classical writers and critics of Greece and Rome; but he has, at the same time, an openness of mind and liberal outlook that is ready to defend the valuable features of the native tradition.

University Questions

Assess Dryden’s greatness or limitations as a critic from his discussion of the unities.
How far does Dryden agree on the necessity of the unities for the perfection of a play?
Compare and contrast Dryden’s views on the unities with those of Aristotle and Sidney.

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