The classical unities, Aristotelian unities, or three unities represent a prescriptive theory of dramatic tragedy that was introduced in Italy in the 16th century and was influential for three centuries. The three unities are:
In 1514, author and critic Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478 - 1550) introduced the concept of the unities in his blank-verse tragedy, Sofonisba. Trissino claimed he was following Aristotle. However, Trissino had no access to Aristotle's most significant work on the tragic form, Poetics. Trissino expanded with his own ideas on what he was able to glean from Aristotle's book, Rhetoric. In Rhetoric Aristotle considers the dramatic elements of action and time, while focusing on audience reception. Poor translations at the time resulted in some misreadings by Trissino.
Trissino's play Sofonisba followed classical Greek style by adhering to the unities, by omitting the usual act division, and even introducing a chorus. The many Italian playwrights that came after Trissino in the 16th Century, also wrote in accordance to the unities. However, according to the The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, the imitation of classical forms and modes had a deadening effect on Italian drama, which became "rhetorical and inert". None of the 16th century tragedies that were influenced by the rediscovery of ancient literature have survived except as historic examples. One of the best is Pietro Aretino's Orazia (1546), which nevertheless is found to be stiff, distant and lacking in feeling.
In 1570 the unities were codified and given new definition by Lodovico Castelvetro (ca. 1505-1571) in his influential translation and interpretation of Aristotle's Poetics, Poetica d'Aristotele vulgarizzata e sposta ("The Poetics of Aristotle translated in the Vulgar Language and commented on"). Though Castelvetro's translations are considered crude and inaccurate, and though he at times altered Aristotle's meanings to make his own points, his translations were influential and inspired the vast number of scholarly debates and discussions that followed all through Europe.
One hundred and twenty years after Sofonisba introduced the theory to Italy, it then introduced the concept once again, this time in France with a translation by Jean Mairet. Voltaire said that the Sophonisba of Mairet had "a merit which was then entirely new in France, -- that of being in accordance with the rules of the theatre. The three unities of action, time, and place are there strictly observed, and the author was regarded as the father of the French stage." The new rules caught on very quickly in France. Corneille became an ardent supporter of them, and in his plays from Le Cid (1636) to Suréna (1674) he attempted to keep within the limits of time and place. In 1655 he published his Trois Discours, which includes his arguments for the unities. Corneille's principles drew the support of Racine and Voltaire, and for French playwrights they became hard rules, and a heresy to disobey them. Voltaire said:
However in France opposition soon began to grow in the form of a Romantic movement, that wanted freedom from the strictures of the classical unities. It turned into a fierce literary conflict. The opposition included Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and others. When Victor Hugo published his play, Cromwell, he attacked the unities in the preface. The conflict came to a climax with the production of Victor Hugo's play Hernani at the Theatre Francais, on the 21st of February 1830. It was reported that the two sides, the "Classicists" and "Romanticists", both full of passion, met as on a field of battle. There was a lot of clamor in the theatre at each performance, even some fist fights. The newer Romantic movement carried the day, and French playwrights no longer had to confine their plays to one location, and have all of the action packed into one day.
The Classical Unities seem to have had less impact in England. It had adherents in Ben Jonson and John Dryden. Examples of plays that followed the theory include: Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd (1682), Joseph Addison's Cato, and Samuel Johnson's Irene (1749). Shakespeare's The Tempest (1610) takes place almost entirely on an island, during the course of four hours, and with one major action -- that of Prospero reclaiming his role as the Duke of Milan. It is suggested that Prospero's way of regularly checking the time of day during the play might be satirizing the concept of the unities. In An Apology for Poetry (1595), Philip Sidney advocates for the unities, and complains that English plays are ignoring them. In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale the chorus notes that the story makes a jump of 16 years:
Impute it not a crime
To me or my swift passage, that I slide
O'er sixteen years and leave the growth untried
Of that wide gap
... they are rather so many Chronicles of Kings, or the business many times of thirty or forty years, crampt into a representation of two hours and a half, which is not to imitate or paint Nature, but rather to draw her in miniature, to take her in little; to look upon her through the wrong end of a Perspective, and receive her Images not onely much less, but infinitely more imperfect then the life: this instead of making a Play delightful, renders it ridiculous.
Samuel Johnson in the preface to his edition of Shakespeare in 1773 rejects the previous dogma of the classical unities and argues that drama should be faithful to life:
John Pitcher, in the Arden Shakespeare Third Series edition of The Winter's Tale (2010), argues that Shakespeare was familiar with the unities due to an English translation of Poetics that became popular around 1608, and that The Winter's Tale intentionally breaks the rules.
Aristotle's Poetics may not have been available to Trissino, when he formulated the unities, and the term "Aristotelian unities" is considered a misnomer, but in spite of this, Aristotle's name became attached to the theory from the beginning. As translations became available, theorists have looked to the Poetics in a retrograde manner for support of the concept. In these passages from the Poetics, Aristotle considers action:
Tragedy, then is a process of imitating an action which has serious implications, is complete, and possesses magnitude. ... A poetic imitation, then, ought to be unified in the same way as a single imitation in any other mimetic field, by having a single object: since the plot is an imitation of an action, the latter ought to be both unified and complete, and the component events ought to be so firmly compacted that if any one of them is shifted to another place, or removed, the whole is loosened up and dislocated; for an element whose addition or subtraction makes no perceptible extra difference is not really a part of the whole.
Well then, epic poetry followed in the wake of tragedy up to the point of being a (1) good-sized (2) imitation (3) in verse (4) of people who are to be taken seriously; but in its having its verse unmixed with any other and being narrative in character, there they differ. Further, so far as its length is concerned tragedy tries as hard as it can to exist during a single daylight period, or to vary but little, while the epic is not limited in its time and so differs in that respect.