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The unities

The concept of the three unities, in relation to classical drama, derives from Aristotle's Poetics but is not directly formulated by the Greek philosopher. He merely states that a tragedy should have unity of action, meaning that a plot should form a consistent whole and should not be interrupted by digressions or subplots.

The Poetics are unknown in western Europe during the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance a Latin translation is published in Italy, in 1498, after which there is much discussion of classical literary principles. However it is not until 1570, in a book by Lodovico Castelvetro, that the concept of three unities evolves.

Castelvetro attempts to clarify unity of action by adding the element of time. He suggests that a tragic action should begin and reach its completion within a span of twenty-four hours. This implies, within the limitations of contemporary travel, that it should also take place in one location.

Thus the three unities, of action, time and place, become lodged in European literary theory. They are taken up with most enthusiasm not in Italy, but in classically-minded 17th-century France - and above all in the tragedies of Corneille and Racine.

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