Can a Brother Get a Little UNITY up in this Play?

OK, time to break out the concept of Aristotelian unities of action, place, and time, or at least when people assume to be Aristotle’s views on the unities.

In Aristotle’s thesis on drama and dramatic theory, Poetics, he discusses the “rules” for composing poetry, which included play-writing.

quick diversion…
Question: if Shakespeare wrote plays, why is he a playwright?
Answer: Drama is a larger effort than just putting words down on paper (write)… in involves the WORKING of the text into a production (wrought, as in wrought iron) …
really, no lie


Now, according to our definition, Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude...  As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.

— Aristotle, Poetics

In other words, the play should be about one thing, so that if you remove any part of it, the whole thing falls apart.  Shakespeare pretty much adheres to this in The Comedy of Errors; take any scene out of the play and it won’t make sense… he can play fast and loose with it elsewhere in his career (Fortinbras, anyone?), but here, it’s pretty tightly written. And don’t get hung up on the whole “tragedy” thing, the only difference for Aristotle between tragedy and comedy is NOT their construction, but the point from which each begins:

tragedy from the leaders of the dithyramb, and comedy from the leaders of the phallic processions which even now continue as a custom

— Aristotle, Poetics

In other words, tragedy stems from the gods or the god-like (great figure who have much to lose), and comedy comes from fertility rites, which is why most literary critics define comedies not by laughs, but rather how the story is resolved (usually with a pairing off of lovers, a marriage, or a birth).


Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in verse of characters of a higher type. They differ, in that Epic poetry admits but one kind of metre, and is narrative in form. They differ, again, in their length: for Tragedy endeavours, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit; whereas the Epic action has no limits of time.

— Aristotle, Poetics

In other words, the play should take place over the course of a single day.  The Comedy of Errors is one of only two (count ’em, TWO) plays that conform to the unity of time; the other is The Tempest, the last play in the Bill / Shakespeare Project (first and last… interesting, no?).

And note the difference in verbs used: Action = “must” … Time = “endeavors, as far as possible”… Aristotle gives a rule about Action, yet makes only an observation (it isn’t really even a suggestion) about Time.

And Place? Aristotle didn’t discuss this at all.  People just assume it’s there (it makes it easier for a theater to have only one set) … but Shakespeare rarely adheres to this at all (both The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest are confined to a broad location–a city and an island, respectively–but they travel all over said area… and in the other plays?  fuggetaboutit).

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