The time scale

A play of two halves

TimeProbably the most noticeable feature of the organisation of The Winter's Tale is its division effectively into two halves. This is specifically marked by the arrival on stage of the figure of Time, at the beginning of Act IV. Announcing that sixteen years have passed, Time moves us on from Perdita's infancy to her appearance as a young woman of marriageable age. The intervening years have also allowed for a deep-rooted change in Leontes; his grief and search for forgiveness and redemption have become the mainspring of his emotions.

More on Shakespeare's manipulation of time: Shakespeare frequently plays with time in his dramas:

  • In some, such as Othello, there seem to be two time-scales operating simultaneously. Othello and Desdemona have been on Cyprus for only a day and a half when he kills her, yet he also seems to suspect her of having long been Cassio's mistress, talking of the ‘thousands' of times that they have had illicit intercourse
  • In Macbeth it is difficult to be sure whether the action is supposed to take weeks, months or years
  • In Romeo and Juliet the whole love-affair and subsequent suicides take place in less than a week
  • In Hamlet the prince is a student at university at the beginning of the play, yet we are told in Act V that he is thirty – though the action seems to last only a month or so
  • In the first section of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare conflates events which took months in real historical time into a couple of days in his play
  • In The Tempest the whole action is supposed to take place within three hours – more or less in the ‘real time' of the theatre audience.

The Unities

The idea of the unities arose from the theory of drama outlined in Aristotle's Poetics.

  • The Winter's Tale depicts actions which take place over sixteen years in two distant countries
  • The Tempest depicts actions lasting only three hours, all set on a small island.

In this way The Tempest is the only Shakespearean drama which comes close to fulfilling the idea of the ‘Classical Unities':

  • Unity of place – all the action occurs in one location
  • Unity of time – all the action occurs in one day
  • Unity of action - one sequential series of events.

More on the unities: This was an idea, derived from Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher and critic. In his Poetics (written in the mid-fourth century BC) Aristotle described, rather than prescribed, what happened in plays of his day, where dramas depicted actions taking place in one place, on one day, and with no sub-plot. However, by the Middle Ages in Europe Aristotle's ideas had been revived and were being taken as edicts defining what should happen in drama. Consequently several critics in the two centuries following Shakespeare criticised his plays for not observing the Classical Unities.

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