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A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance

This notion of the verisimile


There

is, indeed, in Scaliger (1561) no direct statement of the unity of time; but the reference to it is nevertheless unmistakable. First of all, Scaliger requires that the events be so arranged and disposed that they approach nearest to actual truth (_ut quam proxime accedant ad veritatem_).[185] This is equivalent to saying that the duration of the action, its place, its mode of procedure, must correspond more or less exactly with the representation itself. The dramatic poet must aim, beyond all things, at reproducing the actual conditions of life. The _verisimile_, the _vraisemblable_, in the etymological sense of these words, must be the final criterion of dramatic composition. It is not sufficient that the spectator should be satisfied with the action as typical of similar actions in life. An absolutely perfect illusion must prevail; the spectator must be moved by the actions of the play exactly as if they were those of real life.

This notion of the _verisimile_, and of its effect of perfect illusion on the spectator's mind, prevailed throughout the period of classicism, and was vigorously defended by no less a critic than Voltaire himself. Accordingly, as Maggi first pointed out, if the playwright, in the few hours it takes to represent the whole play, requires one of his characters to perform an action that cannot be done in less than a month, this impression of actual truth and perfect illusion will not be left on the spectator's mind. "Therefore,"

says Scaliger, "those battles and assaults which take place about Thebes in the space of two hours do not please me; no sensible poet should make any one move from Delphi to Thebes, or from Thebes to Athens, in a moment's time. Agamemnon is buried by AEschylus after being killed, and Lichas is hurled into the sea by Hercules; but this cannot be represented without violence to truth. Accordingly, the poet should choose the briefest possible argument, and should enliven it by means of episodes and details.... Since the whole play is represented on the stage in six or eight hours, it is not in accordance with the exact appearance of truth (_haud verisimile est_) that within that brief space of time a tempest should arise and a shipwreck occur, out of sight of land."

The observance of the unity of time could not be demanded in clearer or more forcible terms than this. But it is a mistake to construe this passage into a statement of the unity of place.[186] When Scaliger says that the poet should not move any one of the characters from Delphi to Thebes, or from Thebes to Athens, in a moment's time, he is referring to the exigencies, not of place, but of time. In this, as in many other things, he is merely following Maggi, who, as we have seen, says that it is ridiculous for a dramatist to have a messenger go to Egypt with a message and return in an hour. The characters, according to Scaliger, should not move from Delphi to Thebes in a moment, not because the action need necessarily occur in one single place, but because the characters cannot with any appearance of truth go a great distance in a short space of time. This is an approach to the unity of place, and had Scaliger followed his contention to its logical conclusion, he must certainly have formulated the three unities. But by requiring the action to be disposed with the greatest possible approach to the actual truth, or, in other words, by insisting that the action must coincide with the representation, Scaliger helped more than any of his predecessors to the final recognition of the unity of place.


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