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Commedia Dell'Arte: Plays, Facts & Costumes

Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

Commedia dell'Arte is a fascinating form of theater, often improvised around set scenarios. This lesson will introduce you to its basic characters, the costumes that distinguish them, and important facts about the development of the form.

Costumes and Characters

We've all heard of theater improv or improv art, well welcome to the 17th century's form of improv, commedia dell'arte. Commedia dell'arte is a theatrical art form, which gained popularity in Italy, built around comedic situations that arise when stock characters come into conflict. These characters are stereotypes of things like love, jealousy, and buffoonery. As the form developed over the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the stock characters became associated with particular costumes and masks. These helped audiences identify what each character personifies and made it easy to identify the character in each commedia dell'arte performance. There are many characters associated with the form. Here are some of the most important ones.

Harlequin

Sometimes called Arlechinno, Harlequin is one of the most instantly recognizable characters from commedia dell'arte. He is typically another character's servant, trying to undermine their authority and chase after Columbina, his love interest. He's known for wearing a colorful, diamond-checked, tight-fitting costume and a black and red half mask. He carries a wooden sword or stick that he uses as part of his antics, leading to his association with slapstick, or physical humor. He's a trickster, a bit devilish, known for causing mayhem.

Harlequin

Capitano

Il Capitano brags of grand achievements as a lover and military captain, but it's probably all talk. He passes himself off as brave to impress others, but is undermined by characters like Harlequin. Typically, Capitano wears an exaggerated military uniform, with a feathered hat and ornate boots. His mask has a ridiculously long nose.

Columbina

Harlequin's love Columbina is portrayed as an innocent maid or servant. Her dress is usually simple, but can also have a patchwork pattern similar to Harlequin's. Normally, Columbina does not wear a mask. Her innocence is a bit of a ruse--depending on how she is performed, she may be a perky and flirtatious character, or a quick-witted one known to outsmart the others.

Pierrot

The comedy in commedia dell'arte performances usually comes at someone's expense. The naive Pierrot is known as a sad clown: he is dressed in frills and puffy clothing, but he's in all white and is constantly heartbroken that the vivacious Harlequin has stolen his love, Columbina. His face is covered by a white mask or white paint, making him seem even sadder or even ghost-like, as though he's wasting away.

Pulcinella

You can expect that Pulcinella is a ridiculous character, given that his full name Pulcinella Cetrulo means ''stupid little chicken'' in Italian. He's a pastiche of a servant or worker like a baker: he's dressed in long, white, baggy clothes with a big hat that looks something like a chef's hat. He may be portrayed as standing slightly bent over or with a humpback. His mask is brown or black, with a beaked nose, and is decorated with wrinkles, warts, or other deformities. Poor Pulcinella!

Pulcinella

Pantalone

Some characters in commedia dell'arte are more successful. Pantalone represents the love of money. His costume is red and black, and he wears tight-fitting trousers and a flowing cape to suggest his flair and worldliness. Pantalone is known for wearing a brown or black mask with a hooked nose, and sometimes he is depicted with a mustache or flowing wide beard. Despite his ambition, Pantalone is treated as an old fool by the other characters. To play up this aspect, actors may show him as hunchback and have him carry a walking stick as well as his money-bag. Fun fact: the trousers associated with the character Pantalone became known as ''pantaloons'' due to his popularity, later shortened to just ''pants''. Try not to think of Pantalone next time you wear jeans!

Il Dottore

Pierrot has his Harlequin, and Pantalone has Il Dottore, He's also known for being an older man with money. While Pantalone seems foolish, Il Dottore is portrayed as wise. His long, dark, flowing robes make him seem like a scholar--imagine yourself in your graduation robe. Il Dottore also has his faults, however; he's depicted as very rotund, with a funny walk. In commedia dell'arte performances, other characters undermine his seeming wisdom, making him come off as more of a quack than anything else.

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