Document Type


Date of Award



Dramatic unities, Drama, 16th century, History and criticism

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Comparative Literature

First Advisor

George E. Wellwarth

Second Advisor

Haskell M. Block

Third Advisor

Frederick Garber


The present investigation is aimed at filling some of the gaps in current literature on the unities of time and place. First, no comprehensive survey of sixteenth—century discussions of the subject has ever been done. Breitinger's monograph published in l878 is both out of date and incomplete, for it does not include French criticism; and Ebner's studies don't include either French or English criticism. In Chapters IV to Vlsuch a survey is provided. Since there is too much material to discuss each item in detail, only the more important documents are treated, and those only in reference to a few select passages which have been translated for the sake of readability. To compensate for the partiality of selection and exclusion of much interesting material, select passages from all sixteenth—century documents known to me in which the unities of time and/or place are mentioned or discussed, 58 are collected separately in Appendix A where the texts are left in the original.

Second, no comprehensive, comparative study of the development of the unities of time and place in sixteenth-century vernacular drama has been made. This is the topic addressed in Chapter VII. Since a complete survey of all sixteenth—century drama in Italy, Spain, France and England would be too extensive, I have limited the investigation to a single genre, tragedy. As is the case with the chapters on criticism, for the sake of economy only a few representative tragedies are discussed in any detail. However, Appendix B includes extensive documentation to which the interested reader may refer.

One of the questions given special consideration in Chapter VIII is the relationship between drama and criticism. It is often supposed that the precepts of neo-classical criticism were developed by theorists with little or no influence from contemporary drama. In the discussion above we have seen this view propounded by scholars like Watt, Spingarn, Saintsbury, and Friedland with special reference to the theory of the unities; we have also seen that there are numerous dissenters. Chapter VIII is intended to shed some light on this issue through a detailed analysis of select sixteenth—century tragedies. Although the focus there is exclusively on tragedy, essentially the same conclusions would have been reached if it had been on comedy instead. The findings in Chapter VIII; then, are relevant to the development of other genres during the sixteenth century, particularly comedy, and to a lesser extent hybrid genres like tragicomedy and comedia de santos. Details of the relationship between the various sixteenth-century dramatic genres and the unities are provided in Chapters II, III, and especially VII.

Finally, there is the basic question posed earlier in this chapter: How do the unities relate to the world—stage metaphor and what is their significance in terms of the sixteenth-century world view? Many scholars have sensed a general relationship between the unities and some of the broader philosophical and cultural trends of the sixteenth century. But there is still a lot of spade—work to be done before these relationships can be coherently worked out. With the exception of a few studies dealing largely with scenography, such as those by Védier, Scherer, and Marotti mentioned above, there is little research upon which to found any general conclusions concerning their connections with cultural developments outside of drama and criticism. As a result, most attempts to see the unities as an integral part of sixteenth-century culture and thought have run into difficulties of a fundamental nature. For example, in 1955 Wylie Sypher published a general study entitled Four Stages of Renaissance Style: Transformation in Art and Literature, 1400-1700. In it he talks about Renaissance concepts of time and space, and relates them to the question of the unities. However, his treatment of the topic has met with some criticism from Philip Damon. In an article on "History and Idea in Renaissance Criticism," he takes Sypher to task.

In his Four Stages of Renaissance Style, Wylie Sypher discusses a variety of renaissance literary and artistic phenomena in terms of the "perspectived" approach to reality, and achieves generally helpful results. When he come to the great sixteenth—century critics, however, something seems to go suddenly and almost predictably wrong, and to do so in a way that typifies efforts to present the commoner varieties of early Aristotelianism as analogous to the intellectualizing, rationalizing thrust of the construzione legitima in painting. To summarize his remarks with injurious brevity, Professor Sypher finds his analogies in the way that Castelvetro's Aristotelian "unities" aimed "to reduce the structure of Renaissance ‘regular drama‘ to an imitation of life seen from a designated point of view--the artificial perspective of a pseudo-Aristotelian canon confining the action to twelve hours."

The issues raised by Damon here, as well as some others, will be treated in Chapters II, III, VII, and VIII. In them the relation of the unities to scenography, perspective, concepts of verisimilitude, the evolution of dramatic genres, systems of perception, and the development of the clock and mechanical astrolabe will be taken up. As was mentioned above, the discussion here will be limited to historical facts and details without lengthy excursions into the broader issues concerning world views. Nevertheless, it is felt that the information presented will be significant to those interested in these larger issues.

The point of departure for this study is the following examination in Chapter II of some Renaissance stages and some of the ways time and space were visually represented on them. The stage has been chosen as a convenient place to begin because an understanding of the physical context in which the unities developed in the theater will help inform the subsequent chapters which treat their development on a more abstract level. It will also be useful in the discussions of drama and criticism where it will serve as a reminder of the practical contingencies which playwrights and critics had to consider when they wrote. It is hoped that this will keep the chapters on drama and criticism from becoming too abstract or detached from the context in which the works were conceived.