Research Stream


Chris Hay (2017)
The University of Sydney

“As nibble jugglers that deceive the eye”: Comic Catharsis in The Comedy of Errors

What makes The Comedy of Errors comic? This project examines the spatial dramaturgy of Shakespeare’s play in order to examine the potential emotional experience of its original audiences.

Comedy of Errors Banner.jpg

Since it was first articulated by Aristotle in the Poetics, the notion of ‘tragic catharsis’  – the depiction of negative emotions through performance in order to inspire and then purge those same negative emotions in the audience – has been fundamental to our understanding of the tragic form, and of how performance works more broadly. The concept of an equivalent ‘comic catharsis’ has proven more elusive in Western literary criticism, perhaps because Aristotle does not devote as much space to the discussion of comic performance genres. Nevertheless, there are several possible ways we might begin to theorise the function of comic catharsis in performance.

The Comedy of Errors, while not performed as often as other Shakespearean comedies, is particularly useful for this kind of practice-focused exploration of stagecraft and emotion. The plot, as the title attests, depends on a series of unlikely coincidences, mistakes and misunderstandings brought about by the actions of two sets of identical twins in one small town. There are two compelling hypotheses for the staging techniques employed to realise this play in its original performance context, developed through rigorous textual analysis and interdisciplinary enquiry.

Following Fitzpatrick’s (2015) suggestion, this research proceeds through work-shopping the two dominant staging proposals for The Comedy of Errors: the five-door ‘mansions’ stage; and the two-door public playhouse stage. Through presenting these two stagings to live audiences, this project will attempt to uncover the mechanics of laughter, comedy and other emotion in the text, and how these are related to staging and spatial dramaturgy.

People Involved

Dr Robin Dixon, National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA)


Image: Detail from François Boitard’s illustration for The Comedy of Errors in Nicholas Rowe (ed.) The Works of Shakespeare (1709), vol. 1.