Johnson's comments on the Violation of Shakespeare's Three Unities in his Dramas

The neo-classical critics raised the question of unites concerning the free dramatic expression of the Elizabethans, particularly Shakespeare. Since the critics of the age showed allegiance to the rules of the classical writers and critics like Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotle and Horace, they put their late writers in the classical mould of (of standard) writing. Whoever fitted nice, passed for valid and if otherwise invalid. Shakespeare with all his natural capabilities was brought to the scale of judgment. Here Johnson in his “Preface to Shakespeare” comes to defend him and shows the inanity of observing the unites of place and time but action.

Among the unites, Johnson found only the unity of action justified by reason since it is needed to present the plot as an inseparable whole. But he founds the grounds for the unites of time and place to be wholly misleading.

He first echoes the objection raiser, “The necessity of observing the unites of time and place arises from the supposed necessity of making the drama credible. The unities hold it impossible, that an action of months and years can be possibly believed to pass in three hours. Fiction loses its force when it departs from the resemblance of reality. From the narrow limitation of time necessarily arises the contraction of place. The spectator who knows that he saw the first act at Alexandra, can not suppose that he sees the next at Rome, at a distance to which not the dragons of Medea could, in so short a time, have transported him. He knows with certainty that he has not changed his place, and he knows hat place cannot change itself.”

To this Johnson answers very tactfully. Johnson says there should not be any consideration for the clock while the mind is “Wandering in ecstasy “ and an hour can happily be allowed to pervade a century. And the unities of time and place come to notice when the spectator enter with sense not imagination. And Johnson rightly says, “Time is of all modes of existence, most obsequious to the imagination.”

As for Shakespeare’s free style writing, Johnson comments that it is not possible to decide and useless to inquire, if he rejected it by design or deviated from them by happy ignorance. What he said of Shakespeare is conjectural and Shakespeare’s ignorance of the two unites: place and time was by chance but later he deliberately practiced it. He was probably indifferent to counsels and admonitions of scholars and critics. But Shakespeare to Johnson was very much strict to the unity of action and other two had either been unknown by him or not observed. “Such violations” according to Johnson “of rules merely positive, become the comprehensive genius of Shakespeare.”