Three Unities in "Volpone" by Ben Jonson

Abstract

This article is an attempt to observe Ben Jonson’s adherence to the Greek concept of Three Unities as a means to contribute to the realism of a play. It begins by introducing the three unities, i.e The Unity of Time, The Unity of Place, and The Unity of Action, and later fits together an explication of the meaning as well as the significance of the three unities as the actual practice of the Greek dramatists. This article observes that Ben Jonson obviously holds on the formula of the Three Unities in the play. It is seen in the play that the story takes place only in one place, that is in a city named Venice. The action confines to a single day, and has no digression. It goes directly to the climax of the plot.

Key Words: The Unity of Time, The Unity of Place, The Unity of Action, Poetics, Renaissance, drama, tragedy, plot

I. INTRODUCTION

Greek and Latin drama are strict in form. The stage represents as a single place throughout the action; the plot recounts the events of a single day; and there is very little irrelevant by-play as the action develops. The formula of the practice to which the Greek and Latin dramatists adhered in general is known as the Three Unities, i.e. the unity of time, place and action. Therefore, the Three Unities were conventions which ancient Greek playwrights were expected to adhere to. Every play was to adhere to these rules, according to their originator, Aristotle. In the name of Aristotle, the three unities were emphasized by the English, the Italian, and the French critics, and especially by the Italians and the French. The English critics of the Renaissance, especially Sir Philip Sidney, regarded the observance of the three unities as obligatory for dramatists. However, in the 17th and 18th centuries, some English critics, especially Dryden and Dr. Johnson, declared that the observance of the three unities was not essential, though Dryden thought that the unity of action was a necessary condition of a successful play.

Aristotle means three unities as a description of the norm, not that of an ideal. Three unities are supposed by critics to be useful in contributing to realism of play. Aristotle describes the drama of an earlier age in his important work On the Art of Poetry; those who follow his precepts call this disciplined structure the “Three Unities”, i.e. the unity of place, the unity of time, and the unity of action.

Dealing with the unity of action in some detail, under the general subject of "definition of tragedy", Aristotle wrote:

Now, according to our definition, Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude[1] … 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.[2] ([1] Aristotle's Poetics, XVII, [2] Aristotle's Poetics, XVIII)

His only reference to the time in the fictive world is in a distinction between the epic and tragic forms:

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.[3] ([3] Aristotle's Poetics, V)

On place he is less explicit, merely saying that ‘tragedy should be confined to a narrow compass’.

Based on the consideration of the dramatic unities of action, time, and place above, it can be inferred that the classical unities or three unities are rules for drama derived from a passage in Aristotle's Poetics. In their neoclassical form they are as follows:

1. The unity of action: a play should have one main action that it follows, with no or few subplots.

2. The unity of place: a play should cover a single physical space and should not attempt to compress geography, nor should the stage represent more than one place.

3. The unity of time: the action in a play should take place over no more than 24 hours.

Ben Jonson, one of the great dramatists in Elizabethan period as well as the greatest English critic between Sidney and Dryden, had a strong masculine intellect, a sound deep basis of classical learning and an abundant fund of common sense. He obviously applied the formula of the Three Unities in most of his plays.

In this article, the writer analyses Ben Jonson’s adherence to the concept of Three Unities in his play entitled Volpone. In the play, the place in which the story takes place is only in one place, that is in a city called Venice. The action of the play is restricted to one day, and the action of the play also has no digression. The action goes directly to the climax of the plot.

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Comments

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