Of the Three Unities of Time, Place and Action by Pierre Corneille: An Overview

Pierre Corneille interprets Aristotle and Horace about the three unities of action, time and place. To begin with, there should be unity of action, but that does not mean that tragedy should have only one action on stage, but must have a beginning, middle and an end.

Pierre Corneille (1606-1684)

These parts in each may contain several other parts constituting unity of action but not a digression. They must be logically linked and the play must be seen as a whole which can only leave the mind of the spectator serene (219). The linking of the scenes constitutes the unity of actions-principal and subordinate that adds beauty in the tragedy. Corneille is of the opinion that the passage from one scene to the next must not be abrupt rather it must fulfill the demand of appearance of necessity.

Corneille wants minimum use of the actions and the use of narration as off stage actions while the onstage action is happening. Furthermore, he states that the offstage actions should also be counted because they too help to constitute unity of action.

The play for Corneille must be divided into five acts; even then, it is not a watertight rule but generally acceptable standard form. Corneille insists that the characters’ entrance in every act must seem natural even if they are not explained. Corneille repeats the Aristotelian and Horation ideas on the parts of the action (complication and resolution) as very important parts. So, Corneille is not only repeating but also developing the classical doctrine of verisimilitude and unity slightly different from the classics.


Equally for the unity of time, Corneille quotes Aristotle “that the tragedy ought to enclose the duration of its action in one journey of the sun or try not to go much beyond it” (qtd. In Corneille 209). But this definition begets confusion whether one journey of the sun means twelve hours or twenty four. Even the action should take place within a short period of time so that the actions resembles reality. To reduce time, we can use narration for example, calling thousand years simple an hour or else.

So far as unity of place is concerned, there is no rule concerning it either in Horace or Aristotle. However, the place should be limited to a single focus. There is also confusion regarding a unity of place. It does not mean a single and fixed space such as a room or hall or else but the points of place that can be stretched to take within two hours, not as ancients conceived twenty four hours.

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