Three Aristotelian units

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The three Aristotelian units are principles for the construction of dramas which are named after the Greek philosopher Aristotle because they are based on utterances in his poetics . The talk of the “three units” has only been around since the Renaissance . They are mentioned for the first time in Lodovico Castelvetro ( La poetica di Aristotele vulgarizzata , 1570).


According to the requirement of observance of the three units, the time , space and plot of a drama should remain uniform. This means that time jumps, changes of location and subplots are excluded. This form has also been called closed drama since Volker Klotz .

In the Renaissance and Baroque periods (16th and 17th centuries) the “units” were interpreted much more strictly than in the examples given by Aristotle in his Poetics. This was adhered to above all by the drama of the French classical period (see rule drama ). This led to a temporary disdain for Shakespeare's dramas for not adhering to any of the units.

In the German-speaking countries in the early 18th century it was mainly Johann Christoph Gottsched who, as part of a reform of the German theater, advocated a reflection on the three so-called Aristotelian units, because this was considered more elegant than the performances of the traveling stages .


Aristotle wanted to separate the drama from the epic , which at least does not have to adhere to the unity of time. Regarding the “unity of time” he writes: “ Tragedy tries, if possible, to stay within a single solar orbit or to go only a little beyond it” ( Poetics , 5). Regarding the unity of the action, he explains: “Tragedy is an imitation of a good and self-contained action of a certain size” ( Poetics , 6). And even more clearly below: "One must combine the fables [of the epic] as in the tragedies in such a way that they are dramatic and relate to a single, whole and self-contained plot with a beginning, middle and end" ( Poetics , 23 ).

Aristotle did not explicitly demand a “unity of place”. Strictly speaking, there are only two Aristotelian units. Many of the classic tragedies, all of which were written before Aristotle, do not adhere to such rules (notably the early dramas of Aeschylus ).

"Unity of place"

The “unity of place” invented as well is documented for the first time in Castelvetro and does not go back directly to Aristotle, but to Julius Caesar Scaliger . The French theorists Jean Chapelain and François Hédelin adopted Scaliger's views. This additional unit had to do with the stage set of the baroque theater , which was delimited by a proscenium , festoons and retractable backdrops , which did not allow quick changes of the decoration. In the eyes of contemporaries, this stage form had overcome the medieval simultaneous stage with its unclear definition of the scenes. If the place of the action changed, this meant considerable technical difficulties.

Pierre Corneille explained in his treatise Discours sur les trois unités (1660) that he had not found a rule for a unit of place in Aristotle and Horace, but nevertheless considered it necessary. Two different locations are only possible if they are in different files and do not require different decorations.

With Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz , the identity of the main character takes the place of the three units; the unity of place and time are unimportant.

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