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Commedia dell'Arte

The characters of Theophrastus and the satirical nature of his classification resurfaced in the popular Renaissance form of the Commedia Dell'Arte. Commedia Dell'Arte emerged in Tuscany around 1550, although its origins are difficult to trace. It had its roots in the masked comedies of ancient Rome, both in the works of dramatists like Plautus, and in the folk tradition of the character acting troupes (such as the performers of the fabulae atellanae). The form combined mime, improvised and scripted dialogue (often coarse), with tumbling and acrobatics.Commedia Dell'Arte performances and techniques spread throughout Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, with offshoots in France, Spain and England; gradually the form lost its satirical force, becoming more stylised, relying less on improvisation and more on extravagant costumes and production. It evolved in the late eighteenth century into forms such as vaudeville.  

Commedia Dell'Arte performances centered around four principal players (shown below), with a great array of supporting characters. Part of their strength lay in the use of masks, which reinforced the idiosyncrasies of the main characters, separating them from the more empathetically portrayed characters (such as the Lovers) who did not wear masks. The characters worked within one of several stock scenarios, over which they improvised (a little like the Marx Brothers, perhaps), using the familiarity of the main characters to drive and unify performances.

The Commedia is an important element in the tradition of character taxonomy - its figures are familiar to most of us (through the plays of Shakespeare or Moliere, or from Punch and Judy puppetry). It is difficult to say whether the characters evolved within any particular dramatic typological tradition, or whether they arose as a critical response to social conditions in 16th century Italy. Either way, its typology is both interesting and influential . The four main Commedia characters were:

Miri Leibovitz,

Pantalone,paiper mache ,H.140cm


Pantalone, along with Dottore, represents the older generation in the Commedia. He is usually presented as either an elderly nobleman or as a bankrupt. Plots often revolve around untoward events which rock Pantalone's position of authority, as father and, husband, lover or as master of his house. His best attempts to make a suitable match for his daughter (often with the Dottore) run aground as she falls in love with a younger suitor. His wooing is ardent but unsuccessful, thwarted either by the reluctance of the object of his desire, or by another wooer, sometimes his own son. And his scheming servant Brighella plays him up at every opportunity. Pantalone is characterised by his senile pretensions to youth, which misfire horribly, and by his strenuous but ineffectual impositions of authority. His costume is in red.

Miri Lebovitz,

Dotore, paper mache H120cm


Dottore is Pantalone's middle-aged neighbour, either his friend or a bitter enemy. He is presented as a professional - a doctor or a lawyer or sometimes a charlatan. The original for this character is a satire on Renaissance university men. A great busybody, Dottore habitually gives advice and information, even when he knows nothing. (He is particularly fond of giving advice to young men on the subject of love - usually resulting in his wife's unfaithfulness.) He is also learned, and his mind is full of classical and academic verbiage, most of it inaccurate. He spouts endless tautologies and platitudes, so that it is almost impossible to stop him talking. This combination of muddled thinking, claims to wisdom and complete ignorance combine for great comic effect; it is reinforced by his great corpulence and pompous mannerisms. By the end of a performance, Dottore is usually a laughing stock, cuckolded and ridiculed by the young men of the piece. He is dressed in sombre black, like traditional Renaissance men of learning.

Eduard Shruster,

Harlequin, porcelain, H.120cm


Harlequin is a servant to Pantalone, but never seems to be as involved with his duties as he should be. He embodies the younger generation within the Commedia, its satirical voice, and hence is not ridiculed to the same extent as the older. Not usually active in the main Commedia plots, he is involved in many minor intrigues, either on his own, or with other characters. He is notable for his impetuosity and resourcefulness. If he has an idea, no matter how farfetched, he will put it into action immediately, with no regard for the consequences - the role of Harlequin involves adept verbal extemporisation, as well as acrobatics and some spectacular tumbling. All these are needed to escape from the tight circumstances into which he is invariably thrown. Harlequin is also the Commedia character most leaning towards political satire. He often parodies characters in other plays, or popular figures, and frequently passes comment on contemporary politics. He also speaks directly to the audience, which other characters do not. His colourful patched clothing is one element of the Commedia Dell'Arte which is still well-known.

Eduard Shruster,

Brighella, paper mache, H. 120cm


A fourth character, another servant to Pantalone, usually appeared with or met up with Harlequin. Although many characters could fill this role in the Commedia, the two most common were Scapino and Brighella. Brighella is the initiator of the intrigues and plots around which much of the Commedia action is focused. Often a performance centered around rivalry between Brighella and Pantalone, always to the advantage of the former. He is a master dissembler, playing at many roles (soldier, fortuneteller, musician or thief), and is always on the lookout for easy prey for his exploitation. His character is cunning, witty and often coarse, ready for any scheme, making jokes at the expense of one and all. He also sings well, accompanying himself on a chitarra. His costume is usually white and green. Scapino is a similar character, rather less scheming, and more of a bumbler; he is also more devoted to playing music and singing.


Minor characters in the Commedia Dell'Arte are many and varied - some common ones are the Captain, a dashing soldier, Pulcinella (the original of Punch), and the Lovers (Pantalone's daughter and her swain, who appear unmasked). Plays also usually contained several maids, called Zagne or Servette, each as clever as Scapino or Brighella. During the 200 years in which the Commedia was a lively dramatic form, each of the minor characters also developed recognizable traits and idiosyncrasies - there are literally hundreds of these characters, so we have just described the four main ones.