In the discussion of drama in “Poetics” Aristotle mentions the three unities as the three formal requirements of a play. These are the unities of time, place and action. The unity of time demands that the action should take place within a day. The unity of place demands that the action should take place within one building or city. The unity of action implies that these be a single plot of limited extent.
The unites of time, place and action were considered essential by Renaissance critics. Many dramatists such as Shakespeare paid little attention to the unities of time and place. In his “Preface to Shakespeare” Johnson shows that only unity of action has the critical justification.
In drama neo-classicism is marked by devotion to the “rules” derived from ancient practice and Aristotelian precept. Johnson questions the absolute validity of these rules.
As regards the unity of action, Aristotle says that the plot being an imitation of an action must imitate one action. Then he says that the drama is a whole. The structural union of its parts is such that, if any one of them is displaced as removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. Johnson accepts only the unity of action, among the three unities because the unity of action ensures an effect of compactness and intensity. It helps getting to the centre of things in a play.
Conventions are techniques that are accepted by common agreement. The unities are dramatic conventions. They are necessary but excessive dependence on them makes a play conventional. Johnson shows that Shakespeare, being a great playwright avoids conventionally by avoiding the unities of time and place.
The classicism of the later 17th and 18th centuries was supported by rationalism. This rationalism in the end undercut the authoritarian element in classicism. Johnson in questioning the use of three unities proves himself an exponent of rationalism. He places stresses on being reasonable. Here Johnson might be considered as a reasonable classicist. In his literary criticism he makes constant to firm literary conventional to a general knowledge of life literature. There is always an appeal open from criticism to nature. Some of his ideas may be rigid.
Johnson demands that during the enactment of a play a spectator remains “in a state of elevation above the reach of reason or of truth.” So, Johnson can firmly proclaim that the mind of a spectator wanders in ecstasy while a theatre is being enacted in front of him. But, the spectators always remain in their senses and never forget that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players who are upon the stage to recite a certain number of lines with just gesture and elegant modulation. These lines relate to some actions which may happen in places very remote from each other. And there is no absurdity of allowing that space to represent first Athens, and then Sicily; as all spectators know it to be a modern theatre in actuality. Johnson thus expunges the Aristotelian concept of Unity of Place in dramatic poetry.
Then to comment upon the Unity of Time, Johnson claims that by supposition a place is introduced. Time is all of modes of existence, most obedient to the imaginations. In Johnson’s view the audience does not find it in the least offensive or absurd if the action of the play is located in the first hour at Alexanderia and the next at Rome. A lapse of year may easily be conceived of as a passage of hours. Similarly the audience can accept the change of locations on the stage. On imagination the audience can easily contract the time of real actions and also allow the shifts of settings on the stage.
Thus the unites of time and place are not necessary for creating theatrical illusion. Shakespeare didn’t want the counsels and admonitions of scholars and critics and never bothered the unities of time and place.
Johnson believes that ‘nothing is essential to the fable but unity of action.’ Shakespeare is a supreme by gifted artist. His gifts are intuition and imagination. These help him in maintaining the unity of action. And the unity of action ensure in Shakespeare the arrangements of events by which the initial situation is modified and developed until the final situation is brought out.
The consistency is always maintained. This consistency and continuity of action make his plays plausible and creates successful moment of theatrical illusion.