Dramatic Unities of Comedy & Tragedy in Poetics

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      It has been customary to say that classicism demands three dramatic unities - the Unities of Action, Place, and Time. It has, moreover, been the habit to ascribe to Aristotle this demand for the three unities as being essential to drama. The there unities have, since the Renaissance, been considered to be necessary to create credibility in a play. The neo-classical age made these three unities into a rigid rule to be observed in playwriting. Strangely enough, however, Aristotle did not really put forward any rigid rule regarding Unity of Place. The only unity that he insists on is the Unity of Action. Let us now discuss this unity as put forward in the Poetics.


      The Unity of Action is a fundamental requirement of tragedy. The action, in other words, must have an artistic unity, free of irrelevance. In this connection, Aristotle states: "Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man's life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. Hence the error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a Heracleid, a Theseide or other poems of the kind. They imagine that as Heracles was one man, the story of Heracles must also be a unity."

      Unity is a principle of limit, without which an object loses itself in the region of the undefined, the indeterminate, the accidental, as Butcher observes. It is only by means of unity that the plot becomes significant or individual, and also clear and intelligible.

(i) Action must be a Complete Whole, and have Organic Unity

      The action of a tragedy, says Aristotle, must be a complete whole and it must have 'organic unity'. Significantly, Aristotle compares the plot to a living organism. In a living organism, each part is related to the other, and also to the whole. So, too, in tragedy, every event or incident should be connected properly. There should be no superfluity or irrelevance. And the connection should be achieved in such a manner that the removal of any part would harm the harmony of the whole. Thus, none of the parts of tragedy should be gratuitous. Aristotle does not mean that there should be no episodes in tragedy that would be an impossible contention! He means that the episodes should be well-connected and related. The episodes should be integral to the whole.

(ii) Unity Allows for Variety and Freedom of Creation

      The very fact that Aristotle compares the plot to a "living creature" shows that he is not speaking in favor of some formal, dead, mechanical kind of unity. The "organic unity" which he speaks of, allows room for the vitality and freedom of creation. It also shows that Aristotle's concept of unity did not tend towards uniformity. In a tragedy, there are a number of incidents and events or episodes. But these incidents are not mechanically pieced together, but united vitally. They are so connected with one another that, together, they form a complete whole. Thus variety-inevitability about the incidents; it seems as if, given the circumstances, nothing else could have happened.

(iii) Unity of Action Revealed in the Causal Connection of Incident and in their Direction towards a Single End

      The variety of episodes in a tragedy are given unity through two ways-first, in the causal connection that binds together the several parts of play. Thus the thoughts, emotions, decisions of will, the external actions, are all inextricably interwoven. Secondly in the fact that the whole series of events, with all the moral forces that are Drought into collision, are directed to a single end. The action progresses and converges on a definite point, the catastrophe.

      A complete action achieves its end or purpose. A whole is that which has a beginning, middle and end. "A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it."

      It has been argued that a beginning is in some way or the other actually connected to something else coming before. But the chain of cause and effect is not followed infinitely. Antecedent events do not come upon us in an unending series. If that happened, drama would be an endless retrograde movement. A play must begin at some definite point and end again at some definite point. The poet is to see that the beginning and end are not chosen arbitrarily and that the action is complete in itself. Within the dramatic action, a strict sequence of cause and effect is to be maintained. The middle is causally connected to the beginning and the end. There is a logical development, or a logical connection between the parts. Together they are directed towards one end, the catastrophe. Episodic plots are condemned by Aristotle because in such a case the episodes are not causally related; there is not a sense of probability or necessity about them.

(iv) Organic Unity: An Inward Principle

      The unity of the tragic action, remarks Butcher, is an organic unity, an inward principle which reveals itself in the form of an outward whole. Poetry is an imitation of men in action; he implies the inclusion of the thoughts, feelings, motives, will, passion, or the inner world of man. This inner world is reflected in outward action. As Aristotle tells us, unity of action cannot occur simply because all the incidents happen to one man: "For infinitely various are the incidents in one man's life which cannot be reduced to unity." Artistic unity demands selection and ordering of material. An artist cannot cut a slice at random from life. He has to select his material, and arrange them into incidents.

      Experience presents life as a chaotic and confusing tangle. The artist has to make sense of this tangle and represent life with a pattern. The artist presents the universal, not the particular. To this end, the incidents must be so selected that they seem to be connected in a strict sequence of cause and effect. It is selection that gives to art its own reality. It is through selection that the parts can be made to relate to one another, as well as to the whole; and made to relate in such a way that the removal of even one part would seriously disturb the whole. Thus irrelevances and superfluities should be completely discarded. Each incident should contribute to the development of the plot, and have an inevitability about them. F. L. Lucas remarks that logical causation in drama seems important because of artistic reasons. Art seems a combination of two human impulses - our fondness for reproducing life, and our fondness for design, pattern, order. So we like design of a plot to seem inevitable to have both a plan that seems causally inevitable and a pattern that seems artistically inevitable. Indeed, we are quite willing to believe the improbable in real life, whereas the same improbability in drama is scoffed at as being 'unreal'. This is due to the fact that, "in life, knowing it real, we are enthralled by its becoming fantastic: but with drama, knowing it unreal, we need to believe it real, before we can enjoy its strangeness."

(v) Unity of Action and Magnitude

      Aristotle's contention about the order and wholeness of a tragedy is closely related to what he says about its 'magnitude', or length. The play should be of the correct length or size. It should be long enough to display adequately the hero passing by a series of probable or necessary stages from misfortune to happiness, or from happiness to misfortune. The play must not also exceed the length that can be easily retained by human memory; otherwise, the essential unity of impression would be lost. But it should have the greatest extension and variety that is compatible with unity of impression.

      If the the plot is too large, the whole cannot be appreciated as a single impression. It is too small, it would be unintelligible. Once again, Aristotle uses the example of the living creature to illustrate what he means. The very large object cannot be comprehended immediately in all its details; a very small one is too insignificant. In either case, namely the too large or the too small plot, the unity of action would tend to be disturbed.

(vi) Comic Relief or Dramatic Relief

      The insistence on the Unity of Action implies disapproval of the mingling of two actions directed toward different ends. Aristotle rules out there being more than one action in a play. He is not in favor of introducing the 'sub-plot'. And he not in favor of the double-ending', in which there is tragic end for some and a happy end for some. Tragedy and comedy, as dramas, involve different ends, and their actions in being directed towards those ends, are not similar to each other. Thus if comic aspects are introduced into tragedy, there is mingling of action, and this would lead to the disturbance of the unity of action, its completeness and wholeness. According to Aristotle, plurality of action tends to weaken tragic effect. The purpose of tragedy is to arouse pity and fear, and the plurality of action would defeat this very purpose. It would distract attention and disturb the concentration of the action.

      Critics have, however, questioned Aristotle's clear separation of tragedy from comedy. They argue that, as life consists of a mixture of tears and laughter, a dramatic presentation could also contain a mixture of the two. Greek practice itself allowed a certain amount of comic relief. The tragic trilogy was regularly followed by a tragic burlesque, as Lucas observes. There are furthermore, partly comic figures in Greek tragedies - the Nurse in The Choephorae, Oceanus in Prometheus, the Messengers in Antigone.

      English drama, especially in the Renaissance, did not refrain from this mixture of the comic and the tragic. Comic relief is very much in evidence in the best of the tragedies of the age. Shakespearean tragedy has clearly demonstrated that the introduction of the comic into a tragedy need not detract from the play's essential effect. Indeed, Polonius in Hamlet, the fool in Lear, the porter in Macbeth, and the grave-digger in Hamlet, produce some of the most significant scenes.

      Critics have also pointed out that an audience might concentrate better on a crisis if it has relaxed at moments in between. However, if humor is introduced in tragedy, it must be seen that it does not in any way clash with the tone of the whole. On this, all critics seem to agree. Shakespeare's handling is great, precisely because this fault is not found in his plays.


      Aristotle gave a tentative view on the length of a tragedy "tragedy endeavors, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or slightly to exceed this limit". The very nature of the statement, one notes, indicates that it is in the nature of an observation of the practice prevalent in Aristotle's day. Further, it is also clear that Aristotle is not stating a rigid rule or principle - this is obvious from the use of the phrase, "as far as possible". Indeed, the statement is a good example of how Aristotle did not indulge in giving dogmatic opinions.

      This refusal of dogmatism, however, did not prevent certain ardent followers of the 'classical' tradition from firmly and rigidly laying down the doctrine of the Unity of Time. What is more, these neo-classical critics ascribed the doctrine to Aristotle. The Unity of Time came about through sheer misunderstanding, as Lascelles Abercrombie comments. The formulators of the doctrine were mistaken about what Aristotle meant. They invoked realism to defend the rule.

      It was in Renaissance France and Italy that this predilection' for the three unities began. The critics of this age favored the Unity of Time on the basis the spectators would not believe in the reality of an action which dealt with a number of days within the limit of three hours in the theatre. The disbelief would naturally detract from the effect of tragedy. Thus, the critics argued, the action of a tragedy should be confined to the amount of time it takes to act out the events on stage. i.e., a play lasting for three hours should cover events which took place in three hours! That apparently sounds absurd. It came out of the tendency of the neo-classics to tout Greek the Greek. A study of Aristotle, however, clearly refutes the concept of the unity of time being a rigid rule or principle. Indeed it could not have been so, because in Greek tragedies such as Bumenides, Suppliants of Euripides and Agamemnon, there is no evidence of the unity of time being followed. The plays cover the space of several years.

      It was the neo-classical critics who carried the Unity of Time to absurd lengths. And it is derived from the notion that the whole dramatic performance is meant to be a delusion, with stage time and imagined action being exactly correspondent. It was on the basis of this absurd notion that Shakespeare's indifference to the Unity of Time in his plays was severely criticized.

      Aristotle, however, makes a suggestion or states a general observation, and not a rigid rule. Bywater's comment in this connection is relevant: "What Aristotle actually says is not a precept, but only an incidental recognition of a fact in the practice of the theatre of his age." Lascelles Abercrombie makes a similar remark "This casual remark simply refers to the practice of Greek tragedy, not to anything inherent in the nature of drama...Aristotle himself admits that the rule was not absolute as regards time." The neo-classical theory of Unity of Time is based more on the concept of 'imitation'. If Greek tragedy presented a story in an unbroken continuity of action, it was because this was most convenient for practical purposes, and not because they were observing and strict rule.

      As F.L. Lucas observes, the convention of the the chorus made Greek tragedy adhere, out of practical purposes, to the unity of time. It was unlikely that the chorus consisting of the same dozen men should punctually reassemble at intervals of years. Butcher makes a similar observation when he says that the presence of the chorus tended towards Unity of Place and Unity of Time. In this connection, he makes another relevant observation that the chorus also leant itself to the overcoming of the Unity of Time. The imagination travels easily over many hours.; and in the Greek drama the time that elapses during the songs of the Chorus is entirely idealized.


      Aristotle does not mention the Unity Place at all. Hence it is strange that many people are under the misconception that he propounded it. The remark that might have led to this misconception is made by Aristotle when comparing epic and tragedy:

In a play one cannot represent an action with a number of parts going on simultaneously; one is limited to the part on the stage and connected with the actors. Whereas in epic poetry the narrative form makes it possible for one to describe a number of simultaneous incidents.

      Visually, the Greek setting did as a rule present only one place throughout the action. But, once again, Aristotle did not formulate any rigid rule about Unity of Place as such. It was French and Italian Renaissance critics who invented the doctrine. Scaliger and Castelvetro began the theory and Sidney brought it into England. The neo-classical critics held it to be an inviolable part of dramatic art. But among the neo-classics of England, Dryden brought an objection to such rules. Later, Dr. Johnson clearly brought out the absurdities of the concept. It was realized that the Unities of Time and Place are irrelevant, because their infringement is found in practice to offer no real difficulty to the imagination. Here, again Shakespeare's plays have proved that indifference to the 'minor' unities of place and time has no drastic effect on the overall effect of the play.


      We see that the dramatic unity stressed upon by Aristotle was that of action. This has, more or less, been justified by general practice. Here, too, Shakespeare and other Elizabethans have shown that the introduction of comic relief need not vitiate the tragic effect of a tragedy. In our day, T.S. Eliot has argued that, though human nature may permanently crave for comic relief, "that does not mean that it is a craving that ought to be satisfied. It springs from a lack of capacity for concentration....The doctrine of Unity of Sentiment, in fact, happens to be right." But F.L. Lucas finds comic relief valuable, artistically. Further, the contrast may give new depth. If it is a question of concentration, an audience may concentrate better on crises if it has relaxed moments in between. The Unities of Time and Place are superfluous, and their non-observance would not seriously affect the dramatic effect. Butcher contends: "The failures and successes of the modern stage alike prove the truth of the Aristotelian principle, that Unity of Action is the higher and controlling law of the drama. The Unities of Time and Place, so far as they can claim any artistic importance, are of secondary and purely derivative value." Indeed the Unity of Time and Unity of Place have been made into rules by critics other than Aristotle. Their interest, however, is now more historical than dramatic.


1. What are the three dramatic unities? Why have they been considered necessary?
2. What do you understand by the concept of Unity of Action in an imaginative composition? Discuss with reference to Aristotle's theory.
3. What do you understand by Dramatic Relief? On what grounds did Aristotle oppose the mingling of the tragic and the comic?
4. What have the major English critics to say about the three dramatic unities? Do the unities serve a useful purposes?
5. What have the major English critics to say about the three dramatic unities? Do the unities serve useful purpose?
6. Write short notes on (a) Tragi-comedy, (b) Unity of Place, (c) Unity of Time, (d) Dramatic relief.

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