February 01, 2010

So much for the unities

The Greek philosopher Aristotle had enormous influence on Western thought since his works were rediscovered (thanks in part to Muslim scholars) around the 12th century. His thought provided the framework for St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica as well as for Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Parts of his Ethics and Politics hold up well to this day.

His theories on art as expounded in the Poetics continued to be influential long after his metaphysical influence had waned and were going strong during Shakespeare’s time (search this blog in the upper left hand corner for more on that).

Many dramatists of that time and beyond adhered to Aristotle’s theory of “the unities” in tragic art, meaning that a work should take place at one time and in one place with one overriding theme. The best example of this is probably Sophocles’ Oedipus.

That would be yet another convention Shakespeare threw out the window. I could be wrong, but I can’t think of a single tragedy of his that fits that model. As Samuel Johnson put it:

Whether Shakespeare knew the unities, and rejected them by design, or deviated from them by happy ignorance, it is, I think, impossible to decide, and useless to inquire. We may reasonably suppose, that, when he rose to notice, he did not want the counsels and admonitions of scholars and critics, and that he at last deliberately persisted in a practice, which he might have begun by chance. As nothing is essential to the fable, but unity of action, and as the unities of time and place arise evidently from false assumptions, and, by circumscribing the extent of the drama, lessen its variety, I cannot think it much to be lamented, that they were not known by him, or not observed: Nor, if such another poet could arise, should I very vehemently reproach him, that his first act passed at Venice, and his next in Cyprus. Such violations of rules merely positive, become the comprehensive genius of Shakespeare…

It is true that most of the action in Hamlet happens around the castle in Elsinore, although there is also the famous graveyard scene. But that’s as close to the unities as it gets. The action is stretched out over a period of weeks or months, at least long enough for Hamlet to see the ghost, put on an antic disposition, set up a play within a play, whack Polonius, get sent to England, get captured and ransomed by pirates, and return to Elsinore.

The plot is hardly unified either. Shakespeare took the template for a simple revenge play and broke that mold as well. There are several subplots (involving Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz/Guildenstern, etc).

The main plot of the play isn’t in fact revenge; instead it is the title character himself who hijacked the whole thing. More on that tomorrow.

THE COSTS OF INEQUALITY are the subject of this item from the Financial Times.

LABOR LAW REFORM goes back to the drawing board in the wake of recent political developments.

THE FUTURE OF COAL under the Obama administration is discussed here.

WHEN IT COMES TO BANKS, boring may be good.


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