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Aristotle’s Poetics

Deciphering one of the

Quintessential Works Written
about Theatre and Acting
The Three Unities
1. The Unity of Action
2. The Unity of Time
3. The Unity of Place
The Unity of Action
• The Unity of Action is essentially
Aristotle’s notion that the play should
contain only a single plot or story line so
that the audience can remain focused on
the idea that it presents rather than being
confused with multiple messages and
• Shakespeare’s multiple plots in his plays
would have defied Aristotle’s Unity of
Action principle.
The Unity of Time
• Aristotle was convinced that audiences
gained the most pleasure from plays in
which the action occurs during a single
and consecutive course of time.
• Flashbacks and abbreviated scenes would
not fit well into Aristotle’s second unity.
• “Real time” performances in which the
action reflects the actual time of the events
would be most preferable.
The Unity of Place
• Aristotle felt that the greatest
comprehension and audience empathy
could be evoked if a play were to take
place in only a single setting. The use of
different settings would be difficult to
portray and might confuse the audience.
• The use of acts and scenes in
contemporary theatre often indicates a
departure from Aristotle’s unities.
Contemporary Use of the Unities
• Some theatre thrives upon the
abandonment of Aristotle’s Unities in the
modern setting. Audiences desire
experimental manipulation of all of the
unities, and this may be due, in part, to the
more contemporary trend of writing and
presenting information and stories in
disjointed and fragmented forms.
The Six Elements of
1) Plot
2) Character
3) Thought
4) Diction
5) Music
6) Spectacle
• Aristotle suggests that this is the “life and
soul of the drama.”
• The most important element of drama
• Called the “arrangement of the incidents”
by Aristotle
• Considered in a linear form by Aristotle to
proceed from beginning to end.
• Aristotle called this element “the agent for
the action.”
• This was considered by Aristotle the
second most important theatrical element.
• Used to bring forth a plot
• The embodiment of action on a stage
• The necessary element for identification
with the play
• Sometimes referred to as the “message”
• Usually understood as a universal or clear
meaning to be comprehended by the
audience who view the play
• Third, in importance as a theatrical
• Aristotle called this “dianoia,” or “the
process of thought.”
• Can sometimes be the moral of a play
• This refers to the words used and their
placement in the text of a play.
• Often, differences in diction within a play
indicate differences in characters.
• Diction can also differ from playwright to
playwright or play to play because of the
playwright’s purpose of language in each
• Aristotle enjoyed plays written in clever
verse, or poetry.
• Aristotle’s definition of music included all
of the audio elements of theatre, not just
instrumental or vocal songs.
• Included in this concept of music are all of
the noises made by actors (sung and
spoken), sound effects, and even
instrumental accompaniment.
• The tone, pitch, rate, volume and inflection
are used to create a musical element in
• This is the visual element of theatre,
considered least important of the elements
by Aristotle.
• Aristotle felt that well-written and well-
performed theatre could even be enjoyed
by the blind.
• Radio drama suggests that the spectacle
is, as Aristotle purported, least important.
Against Aristotle’s Hierarchy of
• The spectacle has become far more
important to playwrights and play
producers, who spend a great part of their
financial resources on sets, costuming,
and special visual effects to entertain
• Experimental theatre tends to manipulate
the elements and distort their importance
in an attempt to reach the audience on a
different level than the obvious.
Aristotle, Why?
• Aristotle was writing at a time when props
and sets would have been difficult to
construct and expensive to present in a
theatrical setting.

• Aristotle was a man who had diverse

knowledge and deep understanding of the
world. He would not have likely enjoyed
many of the “distractions” apparent in
much of today’s entertainment.
Aristotle’s Subject of Study
• Aristotle considered Sophocles’ Oedipus
the King to be among the greatest plays
ever written, so it should come as no
surprise that the play epitomizes the
Aristotelian Unities and elements.
• Another Opening, Another Show by Tom
Markus and Linda Sarver