Pierrot, Harlequin, Columbine—these are names that few recognize today, but in the past, when live theater was the easiest and cheapest form of entertainment, they were legendary.  Dating back to 16th century Italy, these characters come from Commedia dell’arte, a form of outdoor theater that relied heavily on improvisation—essentially the street performers of the Renaissance.  However, while their performances were basically farces and satires, Commedia dell’arte was a serious addition to the theater of the times, and it left a lasting impression on thespian traditions in the centuries to come.

The plots of Commedia dell’arte generally all depended on their collection of exaggerated stock characters that anyone in the audience could relate to: lovers, clowns, tricksters, old misers, boorish policemen, serving maids, and so on.  Traditionally, there would always be a pair of lovers, the innamorati, and a vecchio, a decadent old man determined to keep them apart, whose machinations would be foiled by the antics of his servant.  Plots were simple and straightforward, dealing with sex, love, jealousy, and old age, and generally included off-the-cuff jokes and satires of well-known figures and scandals.

Clowns, known as zanni, (which live on today in the English word “zany,”) performed the same actions as Shakespearian clowns—they were servants of the other characters who posed riddles, played pranks, and entertained audiences with their bizarre schemes and antics which often backfired.  The most enduring of the zanni is Harlequin, or Arlecchino, echoed in the character Harley Quinn from the Batman comics and Neil Gaiman’s short story, “Harlequin Valentine.”  Harlequin is the classic trickster, wearing a patchwork costume and often blackface or a black mask.  He is gluttonous and mischievous, and generally comes onstage to perform acrobatics and pull pranks on the vecchio. 

Harlequin’s love interest is the maidservant Colombina, who is usually portrayed as flirtatious and sassy, often the smartest character in a cast of buffoons, happy to lead Harlequin along while fighting off the advances of Pantalone.  Pantalone, the greedy and arrogant miser, usually the father of the innamorata, is often the key antagonist to the storyline, providing a recognizable villain to rally the audience against as well as a degree of pathos.  The feckless husband of Colombina is Pierrot, the sad clown, whose sole purpose is to having his heart broken, (Colombina inevitably leaves him for Harlequin,) while being the naïve, trusting object of other characters’ tricks.  He is always portrayed in a white costume and a black skullcap, symbolizing innocence and sadness, and has shown up in countless plays, operettas, and films up through the twentieth century.

While Commedia dell’arte as it was originally conceived no longer exists in the thespian world, it has directly inspired works of art in all areas.  The classic puppet show Punch and Judy is based on the clown Pulcinella, while various operas and plays have adapted characters and scenarios.  But perhaps Commedia dell’arte’s most crucial addition to theater has been its introduction of female actors to the trade.  During a time when women’s roles were played by men, this was a highly controversial move, and many Commedia dell’arte troupes were labeled degenerate by the powers that be in Renaissance Italy.  However, this opened up new opportunities and modes of expression in the theater world, leading to further evolution of the roles of actors and artists in society.