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Rehearsing Shakespeare: Time

"In the Globe, dramatic Time expanded and created a form of drama that put the whole world on the stage as best it could."

We attribute the concept of "the unities" of Time, Place and Action to Aristotle. They were not exactly rules for drama, more a set of observations about the way the playwrights of the day actually wrote. The unity of Time meant everything that happened in the play happened within the same amount of time it took to perform the play. A new scene would not start days or months after the scene before, let alone after a gap of 16 years as happens between Acts 3 and 4 of 'The Winters Tale'.

The unity of Place controlled everything in the story happening in one location. The unity of Action demanded that dramatic events (deaths, riots, arson and battles for instance) were described by witnesses, not shown directly on the stage. The origins of this tight dramatic structure probably lie in the centuries old craft of the single story teller. A narrator surrounded by listeners by an open fire at night or in a town square by day tells a story: what happened to someone, when and where it happened .The action is moving in time and place only in the imaginations of the audience. Even when a significant change in the craft occurred and the speaker of the tale was joined by a partner, a privileged listener, a questioner, who, unlike the rest of the audience was permitted a voice, what was added was not literal movement in either place or time but simply a deepening of analysis, a curiosity about the meaning of the events being described. 

"This happened" says the story teller. "Why?" asks the listener. "I think it may have been because of X" says the teller. In that "Why?" And the subsequent "I think" and "may" you have the beginning of character caused by the ingredient of Time. The explanation of why a certain thing happened is an individual's interpretation of past events and not merely the events themselves. Different people see things in different ways. If the listener/questioner then goes on to express doubt about the tellers point of view and by doing so reveals themselves to be a different sort of person with a different way of seeing the world, then you have conflict: you have Drama.

In the town squares and first theatres of the ancient world it was enough that action was described and meaning debated through the conflict of characters, but it wasn't enough for Shakespeare's audience. In the Globe, dramatic Time expanded and created a form of drama that put the whole world on the stage as best it could. The audience watching 'The Winters Tale' even saw Time itself on stage as a character, and they wouldn't have been content with one person telling another about Gloucester having his eyes put out, they wanted to see it: and they did. Theatre in Ancient Greece and Rome was about a desire to get to grips with a world that lay under the control of the Gods. Shakespeare's world was hungry to see and understand the consequences of human actions; actions so bewildering sometimes that Viola has to appeal to Time itself saying: "Thou must untangle this, not I, it is too hard a knot for me to untie."

Bill Alexander ©

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