Beyond Slapstick: Humour, Physicality, and Empathic Performance in G. E. Lessing’s Comedies

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Journal / Book Title

Humour in the Arts: New Perspectives


It has been recognised that eighteenth-century comedies frequently analyse the emotions of love and jealousy within the context of a society ridden with inequalities. Surprisingly, however, little attention has been given to the ways in which comedies of manners play with the physical tropes of comedy to the point of questioning these tropes and even developing new theories of physical performance. Lessing’s comedies not only perform what makes audiences laugh but also explore what makes acting work as an affective tool. These comedies and comedic bourgeois tragedies play with misunderstandings onstage, but also perform the physical semiotic processes that make individual affective experience and collective understanding possible, and this chapter argues that a particularly significant element of Lessing’s comedic work lies in this meaningful use of physicality as a tool for inspiring emotional reactions. With additional concluding perspectives on physical, comedic, and emotional elements of British, French, and German “bourgeois tragedy” later in the eighteenth century, the chapter contextualises Lessing’s early work in the history of affective comedy and establishes his place in the broader histories of humour and emotion.



Book Publisher


Journal ISSN / Book ISBN


Published Citation

Westbrook, V., & Chao, S. L. (Eds.). (2018). Humour in the Arts: New Perspectives. Routledge.