The Processes of Eavesdropping: Where Tragedy, Comedy and Philosophy Converge


  • Freddie Rokem Tel Aviv University



Eavesdropping scenes, where one of the characters eavesdrops or spies on one or several of the other characters (usually with the knowledge of at least one of them) will serve as my point of departure for exploring the relations between tragedy, comedy and philosophy. The eavesdropper is a spectator inside the fictional world who because of what he (and most frequently it is a male) learns by eavesdropping or just by carrying out this act of transgression is transformed into a victim. I exemplify with Polonius (in Hamlet, III, 4) and Orgon (in Tartuffe, IV, 5), who are physically situated in a focal (liminal) point where the eavesdroppers become vulnerable and can quickly be transformed from tragic to comic figures and vice versa, transgressing the generic borderlines between tragedy, melodrama, comedy and farce. There are also many instances where philosophical discourses originate from an eavesdropping situation, the most obvious being the form of teaching practiced by Pythagoras, lecturing to his students from behind a curtain. My article also examines examples of eavesdropping in the writings of Plato and Walter Benjamin.

Author Biography

Freddie Rokem, Tel Aviv University

[email protected]

Freddie Rokem holds the Emanuel Herzikowitz Chair for 19th and 20th Century Art and is Professor Emeritus from the Department of Theatre at Tel Aviv University, where he served as the Dean of the Yolanda and David Katz Faculty of 306 the Arts (2002-2006). His more recent books are Philosophers and Thespians: Thinking Performance (2010; translated to Italian and Polish); Jews and the Making of Modern German Theatre (2010, co-edited with Jeanette Malkin); Strindberg's Secret Codes (2004) and the prize-winning bookPerforming History: Theatrical Representations of the Past in Contemporary Theatre (2000; translated to German and Polish). He was the editor of Theatre Research International from 2006-2009, and is now co-editor of the new book series Performance Philosophy (Palgrave Macmillan). He has been a visiting Professor at universities in the United States, Germany, Sweden and Finland, and is also a translator and a dramaturg.


Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Edited by J. O. Urmson. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Benjamin, Walter. 2003. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Translated by John Osborne. London: Verso.

Benjamin, Walter. 1940. “On the Concept of History.” Accessed December 7, 2014.

Benjamin, Walter and Gershom Scholem. 1989. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, 1932-1940. Edited by Gerschom Scholem. Translated by Gary Smith and Andre Lefebre. New York: Schocken.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Euripides. (428 B.C.) 2010. Hippolytus. Translated by George Theodoridis. Accessed February 18, 2015.

Plato. (ca. 385–370 B.C.) 1994. Symposium. Translated by Robert Waterfield. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rokem, Freddie. 2010. Philosophers and Thespians. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

de Vries, Hent. 2009. “Must We (Not) Mean What We Say? Seriousness and sincerity in the work of J.L. Austin and Stanley Cavell.” In The Rhetoric of Sincerity, edited by Ernst van Alphen, Mieke Bal, and Carel Smith, 90-118. Stanford: Stanford University Press.




How to Cite

Rokem, Freddie. 2015. “The Processes of Eavesdropping: Where Tragedy, Comedy and Philosophy Converge”. Performance Philosophy 1 (1):109-18.



Notes on Tragedy