Three Unities for Essay of Dramatic Poesy
An essay of dramatic poesy is a work of literary criticism that defends and evaluates the art of drama. One of the most influential essays of this genre was written by John Dryden in 1666, during the closure of the London theaters due to plague. In his essay, Dryden engages in a dialogue with four friends on the river Thames, who debate the merits of ancient and modern drama, as well as the use of rhyme and the observance of the three unities.
The three unities are principles derived by French classicists from Aristotle's Poetics, which require a play to have a single action represented as occurring in a single place and within the course of a day. These principles were called, respectively, unity of action, unity of place, and unity of time. They were intended to create a sense of coherence, realism, and verisimilitude in drama, and to avoid confusion and improbability. The three unities were redefined in 1570 by the Italian humanist Lodovico Castelvetro in his interpretation of Aristotle, and they are usually referred to as "Aristotelian rules" for dramatic structure.
In Dryden's essay, the four speakers have different opinions on the three unities. Crites, who represents the view of the classical drama, argues that the unities are essential for a just and lively imitation of human nature, and that modern drama violates them by introducing subplots, changes of scene, and mixtures of comedy and tragedy. He also cites Aristotle as an authority on the matter. Eugenius, who defends the modern drama, counters that the unities are not strictly observed by the ancient writers themselves, and that they limit the scope and variety of drama. He also claims that modern plots are more lively and engaging than classical ones. Lisideius, who favors the French drama, asserts that the French plays adhere to the unities more faithfully than the English ones, and that they achieve a greater elegance and refinement by doing so. He also praises the use of rhyme in French drama, which he considers more suitable for heroic themes. Neander, who speaks for Dryden himself, supports the English drama against the French one, and argues that Shakespeare is "the greatest soul, ancient or modern". He also defends the use of rhyme in English drama, but only when it is natural and serves the meaning of the play.
The debate on the three unities in Dryden's essay reflects the different approaches to drama in his time. The classical view, represented by Crites, values order, harmony, and fidelity to nature. The modern view, represented by Eugenius, values invention, diversity, and originality. The French view, represented by Lisideius, values decorum, elegance, and adherence to rules. The English view, represented by Neander, values character, passion, and freedom. Dryden's essay shows that he is aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each view, and that he tries to find a balance between them. He does not reject the three unities altogether, but he does not follow them rigidly either. He believes that drama should be guided by reason and nature, but also by art and imagination.
[An Essay of Dramatic Poesy by John Dryden Poetry Foundation]
[Unities Classical, Aristotle & Tragedy Britannica]
[Unities Classical & Aristotle Bing]