JOHNSON ON THE ‘UNITIES’
Flow far is the argument, that in defending the violation of the unities, Dr. Johnson departs from the fold of neo classicists and joins the fold of the Romantics justifiable.
Ans. Introduction. In order to have a clear idea of all that concerns the three unities, we have to see first what neo-classicism considered them to be. The neo-classicists held them as having the genuine sanction of the real classicists of ancient Greece and Rome. These unities are mentioned in Aristotle’s Poetics as practices of the Greek writers. Nowhere does he lay them down as rules which should be followed by every writer for the sake of making his work realistic or true to life. Aristotle emphasizes the unity of action and merely mentions that it was the general practice to confine the action to twenty-four hours period. Actually, it was the French neo-classicists who established the unifies as rules which an artist is obliged to follow. It was they who attached profound importance to the unity of place, which Aristotle himself seems to have ignored. Johnson is a neo-classical critic; but in the controversy of the unities he abides by a point of view which is thoroughly contrary to the critical attitude prevailing in his time. In this case he anticipates the Romantic critics. Moreover, his daring departure from his contemporaries shows his intellectual integrity and faculty of independent thinking. Perhaps, this is the most striking feature of the Preface. Johnson was so revolutionary enough to think that rather than rules, it is arts proximity to life that renders it magnificent and appealing.
The neo-classicist view. Johnson states the case of neo-classicists quite fairly, and marks that they are in favour of the unities. But he does not leave it at that. He examines each. view and refutes it with proper and sound reasons. Neo-classical critics held it impossible that the audience, could believe the action of a drama in which events that require months and years to happen in real life are presented as having taken place within three hours. They said that it was impossible that the spectator can suppose himself to sit in the theatre, “while ambassadors go and return between distant kings, while armies are levied and towns besieged, while an exile wanders, and returns or till he whom we saw courting his mistress, shall lament the untimely fall of his son.” Johnson sums up the neo-classical contention: ‘The mind revolt from evident falsehood and fiction loses its force when it departs from the resemblance of reality.
The unity of place. The neo-classicists also held it inevitable that if the time of presentation of an event is to be in proportion to the time of action; then changes of place must be such as can be reasonable thought to be possible within the span of action. If the span of the action is one day, no change of place which is impossible within that time would become credible. ‘The spectator who knows that he saw the first act at Alexandria, cannot suppose that he sees the next at Rome,’ a distance to which not the dragons of Medea could, in so short a time, have transported him; he knows with certainty that he has not ‘changed his place, and he knows that the place cannot change itself, that what was a house cannot become a plain; that what was Thebes can never be Persepolis.”
Johnson creed. While refuting the arguments of the neo-classicists Johnson puts forward his own sane and sensible point of view, and attacks the fundamental assumptions of the neo-classicists of which the view of the unities is only one manifestation. Johnson’s refutation of the rules is not merely based on his own critical dogmas;’ he has the authority of the success of Shakespeare. The question is chiefly one of diamatic credibility. The neo-classicists argued that the aim of a dramatist is to deceive the spectators into believing that they ‘are seeing reality. But, in fact. this is not the way in which dramatic.. representations acquire credibility. They are enjoyed and appreciated not because they are real but because, being emulations of realities, they bring realities to the minds of the spectators. Even if delusion were to be the basis of dramatic credibility, neo-classicist objections would have been invalid, for then there is no question of setting a limit to the operation of delusion. If the spectator really thinks that he is watching Antony and Cleopatra of history in Alexandria, then he can believe most anything in the following scenes without any difficulty: “Delusion, if delusion be admitted, has no certain limitation,, if the spectators can be once persuaded, that his old acquaintance (the actors whom he knows personally) are Alexander and Caesar, that a room illuminated with candles is the plain of Pharsalla, or the bank of Granicus, he is a state of elevation above the reach of reason, or of the truth, and from the heights of empyrean poetry, may despise the circumspection’s of terrestrial nature. There is no reason why a mind, thus wandering in ecstasy should count the clock, or why an hour should not be a century in that calenture of the brains that can make the stage a field. “In this way Johnson refutes the neo-classicists and shows that their viewpoint is baseless. None of the spectators takes the action on the stage as true but they willingly participate in its illusion; “the truth is that the spectators are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only stage and that the players are only players. They came to hear a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and elegant modulation. The lines relate to some action and an action must be in some place, but the different actions that complete a story may be in places -very remote’ from each other, and where is absurdity of allowing that, space to represent first Athens, and then Sicily, which was always known to be neither Sicily, nor Athens, but a modern theater?”
Shakespeare and his disregard of unities. Johnson is not quite sure if Shakespeare’s violation of the unities of place and time was deliberate and conscious or if it emerged from his ignorance of them. According to Johnson, Shakespeare may have disregarded the unities in the beginning out of ignorance, but later, even when his fellow dramatists or critics censured this drawback he did not mind them because he would have thought the rules of unities immaterial and absurd. In any case, Johnson thinks that the one unity that is, important is. that of action and Shakespeare’s plays preserve this unity satisfactorily. Coming, therefore to the other two unities of time and place Johnson justifies the stand of Shakespeare: “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, and such censures are suitable to the minute and slender criticism of Voltaire.” What Johnson implies is that a comprehensive genius like Shakespeare ought to be permitted to violate them because the rules do not have any inevitable binding power. It is true that the unities provide pleasure and delight to the spectator, but to stick to them rigidly is to lose other chances to express many other beauties of variety and instruction. A play that observes the unities keenly may of course be a great play. Its scope may be profound and elaborate. There is no harm in preserving the unities if it does not disturb the other more salient aspects of the play. But we should not regard the unities as an end by themselves and hence give them no too high a status or position. “He that without diminution of any other excellence, shall preserve all the unities unbroken deserves the like applause with the architect, who shall display all the orders of architectures in a citadel, without any deduction from its strength, but the principal beauty of a citadel is to exclude the enemy; and the greatest graces of a play are to copy nature and instruct life.” Here we see that Johnson i taking dramatic representation into consideration rather than the path ordained by the blind adherence to established rules.
Enjoying the drama. “A dramatic exhibition is a book recited with concomitants that increase or diminish its effect.” Johnson finds no difference in the type of pleasure which the reading of a drama gives and that which is obtained from seeing a representation of it on the stage. He continues to say that though familiar comedy may seem more impressive on the stage, imperial tragedy is always more impressive in reading than in performance. In reading a play, we are seldom bothered about the unities and this should be the very attitude of the spectator too. Our imagination does not, in fact, revolt against the passage of shorter or longer time, nor does it find it unbelievable if the actions are carried out at two different, distant places. Hence it is erroneous to say that we cannot honour a playwright who thwarts the unities of place and time, We enjoy drama not as a realistic piece of life but as an imitation of the realities of life. “It is credited with all the credit due to a drama. It . is credited, whenever.g moves, as a just picture of a real original; as representing to the auditor what he would himself feel, if he were to do or suffer what is there feigned to be suffered or to be done. The reflection that strikes the heart is not that the evils before us are real evils, but they are evils to which we ourselves may be exposed. If there be any fallacy, it is not that we fancy the players, but that we fancy ourselves unhappy for a moment, but we rather lament the possibility than suppose the presence of misery, as a mother weeps over her babe, when she remembers that death may take it from her.”
Conclusion. Though the period in which he lived may label Johnson as a neo-classicist, he is, in many instances, proved to be no blind follower of the baseless rules of neo-classical criticism. At crucial junctures Johnson’s mature and keen perception disagrees with the established traditional views of his contemporaries and shows independence. This is true especially with regard to his assessment of Shakespeare’s adherence to the unities. He is close to the modern view when he declares that the only essential unity is that of action. His intellectual independence often leads him to be impressionistic and brings him to a stand which the Romantic critics of Shakespeare were to adopt. His attack on the unities is most rational and as one critic says: “Johnson deserves credit for meeting this issue of a characteristic display of two of his most valuable powers. For one thing, he goes immediately to the heart of the matter, putting his finger on the false premise by which the exaggerated doctrine of the unities had so long been sustained, namely, the assumption that the aim of drama is literal verisimilitude, ‘the supposed necessity of making the drama credible.’ For another thing, even if he is only kicking an open door, does this with such ample energy and gusto, such resonance, reverberation of splintering material, that it is doubtful if carpenters will be able very soon to mend this door.”