Commedia dell'Arte Essay - Critical Essays

Commedia dell'Arte


Commedia dell'Arte

Italian form of popular comedy characterized by improvisation and a collection of stock characters, flourishing 1550-1780.

Commedia dell'arte literally means “comedy of the actors.” The term implies a contrast between a popular form of comedic theater that included improvisation, on the one hand, with plays that were based on written texts, on the other. The form came into being around 1550 and reached its height of artistic and commercial success in Italy around 1650. During this time, the great stars of Italian comedy performed, including Flaminio Scala, Francesco Andreini and his wife Isabella, and Silvio Fiorillo. The deaths of those performers and an economic downturn in Italy signaled the decline in the popularity of the commedia dell'arte, which nevertheless continued to be an important form of theater until 1780.

The origins of the commedia dell'arte have been a source of scholarly debate. The respected theater scholar Allardyce Nicoll, for instance, promoted Greek comedy as its most likely progenitor, while other critics argued that the Italian actors' theater derived more directly from Roman farces. Each school of thought is based on the fact that the forms of classical Greek and Roman theatrical comedy also relied on improvisation and character types. Still other commentators have proposed that the commedia dell'arte could be directly traced to the religious Mystery Plays of the Middle Ages, citing the common factors of strolling players and improvising jesters. Later scholars, however, have suggested that while such sources may have had some influence, their defining elements had been altered to the extent that any comparisons from the viewpoint of literary history were unwarranted. Winifred Smith was one of the first scholars to point out that the origins of the commedia dell'arte might best be sought in the Renaissance-era commedia erudite—which translates as “learned comedy”—and in the street performances of clowns, jesters, jugglers, mimes, and others who entertained crowds during Carnival, a traditional period of celebration that precedes the austerities of Lent much in the manner of Mardi Gras in the United States. The commedia dell'arte became a formalized style of theater with the organization of acting companies that specialized in the form during the mid-fourteenth century. By the end of the 1500s, companies such as the Gelosi, the Confidenti, and the Fedeli were sought after for performances at royal courts and aristocratic estates across Europe, though less formal groups of strolling entertainers continued to perform as well. Robert Henke has observed that the adaptability of both the actors of the commedia dell'arte and the genre itself made it possible to suit the performance to spectators of diverse places and social strata.

Though improvisation is considered a hallmark of the commedia dell'arte, spectators knew what to expect when they attended a performance. They would see some version of the four major characters, or masks: Arlecchino, or Harlequin, an innocent but foolish servant; Pantalone, a merchant and the master to Arlecchino; Dottore, a voluble and ignorant doctor; and another servant, usually Brighella, a bolder and more cunning companion to Arlecchino. For most of the golden age of the commedia dell'arte, all the characters participated in the clowning and the physical comedy, but the driving force of the plots was usually the servants, or zanni (from which derives the English word “zany”), and the romantic intrigues they attempted to carry out, either for themselves or their masters. With the addition of female actors to the stage, standard women's roles also evolved, including the Innamorata, or Prima Donna, often the daughter of Pantalone, and Colombina, her servant and the love interest of Arlecchino. These roles could be varied, though the presence of the zanni in some form was essential. A secondary role that appeared frequently was the Captain, who later became the Lover: a version of this was the seventeenth-century character Scaramouche. Within this basic format, the actors worked with scenarii (“scenarios”), which were effectively script outlines that would give some sense of the action and conflict to be portrayed in a scene.

The written scenarii were used for rehearsals, a practice that colors the modern notion of the commedia dell'arte as a theater of pure improvisation. As more recent scholars have observed, the line between scripted theatre and the performances of Arlecchino and Pantalone is difficult to draw. Many agree that the commedia dell'arte highlighted the technical skills of the actors rather than the talent of the playwright, though other distinctions are less clear. Certainly the performances were punctuated by acrobatics, music, and slapstick comedy rather than lengthy speeches. Michael Anderson has suggested that the players were skilled at memorization and would borrow from the commedia erudite and other literary sources, saving them in commonplace books and using them to flesh out their performances. The humor was generally broad and farcical: although some scholars have argued that the commedia dell'arte was satirical in nature, most maintain that the players were far more concerned with demonstrating their skills than with social criticism. Although the scenarii usually involve complex inter-class relations, critics generally have argued that they lack any politically subversive intent. In his study of the French playwright Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux's adaptations of the commedia dell'arte, Derek F. Connon demonstrated that the character of Arlequin (the French rendition of Arlecchino) does not lend itself readily to social criticism.

Modern scholarship devoted to the commedia dell'arte has focused more on the genre's performance and historical issues than on its themes or subject matter. To some extent, the continuing interest in the form has resulted from its extensive influence on European theatre and on modern comedy. Italian troupes traveled widely, and their influence on French and English comedy in particular is a common topic of critical studies. Kathleen M. Lea's pioneering study of the relationship between Italian and English drama argues that relatively few plays were influenced directly by the commedia dell'arte. Nonetheless, traces of the form are visible in much Renaissance drama, including Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew, Love's Labours Lost, As You Like It, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Among French authors, in addition to Marivaux, scholars have proposed that Molière's early farces show the influence of the Italian comedy. Film critics have also observed a connection between the comedy of silent film stars, such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and the commedia dell'arte, proposing that as evidence of the continuing influence of the form. In addition, some actors have attempted to revive the commedia dell'arte in the modern theater. In the late nineteenth century, Maurice Sand, son of the author George Sand, began performing scenes from the commedia dell'arte privately to lift his mother's spirits, eventually sparking a small-scale popular revival in France. More recently, the Italian playwright-actor Dario Fo, along with his wife Franca Rame, appropriated the character of Arlecchino as a medium for social criticism, performing a series of four monologues entitled Arlechinno in 1985. Although Fo and Rame's incarnation of the commedia dell'arte strays from the Renaissance version in its political ambitions, it shares with Italian popular comedy the emphasis on the “comedy of the actors” and the centrality of the performer in creating theater.

Representative Works

Andreini, Francesco
Le bravure del Capitan Spavento della valle inferna [The Braveries of Captain Fear of Hell Valley] (drama) 1607

Fo, Dario
Arlecchino [Harlequin] (dramas) 1985

De Fornaris, Fabrizio
Angelica (drama) 1585

Gherardi, Evaristo
*Le thêatre italien de Gherardi, ou le recueil de general de toutes les comédies et scènes, françoises jouées par les comédiens du roy, pendant tout le temps qu'ils ont été au service [Introduction to Le Theatre Italien.] 6 vols. (dramas) 1700

Goldoni, Carlo
La locandiera [The Mistress of the Inn] (drama) 1753
La buona figliuloa [The Accomplished Maid] (drama) 1756
Il ventaglio [The Fan] (drama) 1763
Il burbero benefico [The Beneficent Bear] (drama) 1771

Gozzi, Carlo
Fiaba dell'amore delle tre melarance [The Love for Three Oranges] (drama) 1761
Re Turandot (drama) 1762

Marivaux, Pierre
La double inconstance [The Double Inconstancy] (drama) 1725
Le jeu de l'amour et du hasard [The Game of Love and Change] (drama) 1730

Molière, Jean Baptiste Poquelin
La jalousie du Barbouillé [The Jealous Husband] (drama) 1645?
La médecin volant [The Fleet-Footed Doctor] (drama) 1645?

Perrucci, Andrea
Dell'arte rappresentativo premeditata e all'improvviso (dramas) 1699

Scala, Flaminio
Il teatro dell favole rappresentative [A Theatrical Repertory of Fables] (dramas) 1611

Shakespeare, William
The Comedy of Errors (drama) 1589
As You Like It (drama) 1599
Twelfth Night (drama) 1601
The Tempest (drama) 1610

*This volume was first published in 1694 as a single volume that comprised scenario used by the Italian Thêatre du Roy in France and performed primarily between 1681 and 1697. The authors anthologized in this volume are predominantly French.

Criticism: Overviews

SOURCE: Forti-Lewis, Angelica. “Commedia dell'Arte.” In Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Vicki K. Janik, pp. 146-54. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Forti-Lewis provides an overview of the commedia dell'arte in the context of a larger study of fools and jesters in world literature.]


The commedia dell'arte was a unique development in the history of the theater in Western Europe. It flourished in Italy in the second half of the sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century it was a less important factor in the theater, although its influence cannot be said to have died out.

Before commedia dell'arte became a firmly established genre, it had its history of development, like any other literary movement. It inherited a fragmentary legacy from many sources: from the commedia erudita (written comedy) of the Renaissance; from the clowns and variety artists who entertained at the festivities of the nobles, especially during the months of Carnival; from the jesters, the minstrels, jongleurs, and medicine shows that in the medieval days attracted crowds of spectators on popular streets; from the Latin comedies of Terence and Plautus; from Atellan farces in Rome; and even from Asiatic mimes. Although all these elements contributed to the formation of the commedia dell'arte, the influence of each was completely submerged and scarcely recognizable when the genre reached maturity in the hands of the notable player companies that started to form after 1550.

Commedia dell'arte means literally “comedy of the actors' guild” and was essentially improvised comedy that followed a plot outline, called a scenario, rather than a written dialogue. The players consisted of a dozen or so stock characters, several of whom wore masks, and two or more zanni (servants), whose lazzi (actions) ranged from comic intonations through acrobatics to obscene gestures. This assortment of roles remained almost constant throughout the life of the genre, and the type were invariably the same, although the names often changed from troupe to troupe.

In commedia dell'arte, by virtue of its partial derivation from Carnival, personality disappeared to be replaced by type: the personality of the actor is thus overtaken not by the author's scripted character, but by the persona of the mask to be played. In the commedia “masks” refers to character types and includes all individual masks or types. Thus the Zania (maidservant) or the Lovers are still masks, even though they do not wear actual masks. Grammelot, the language spoken by the masks, should also be seen in the same light, as a “babel of sounds which, nonetheless, manage to convey the sense of speech … an onomatopoeic flow of a speech, articulated without rhyme or reason, but capable of transmitting, with the aid of particular gestures, rhythms and sounds, an entire rounded speech” (Fo 36).


At the very center of the commedia dell'arte were the four original masks, arranged in twinlike pairs. These were the two vecchi, or older men, and the two zanni, or servants. One of the very first references to commedia dell'arte performances alludes to these four characters as the magnifichi, (the magnificent ones) and the zanni: Pantalones (Trousers, heads of households) and their serving men. A century and a half later Riccoboni speaks of “the four masked actors of our theater, the Venetian Pantalone, the Bolognese Dottore, and the two servants, now identified as Arlecchino the Bergamask and Scapino the Lombard” (Histoire 49-50). Later still the four figures were named by Goldoni as Pantalone, Dottore, Arlecchino, and Brighella (Nicoll, World 40).

The arrangement of these four characters in pairs is by no means fortuitous. While the immediate practical value is the opportunity for delivering the dialogue, another and deeper value is the twin-sided mirror such pairing provides each couple. But to think of these characters simply in pairs means that we shall impose upon an art of infinite modulations a dull and static design that does no justice to what these performances offered.

Of the two older characters, the Venetian Pantalone, invariably a miser (Pantalone de' Bisognosi), is essentially a peace-loving man. He is represented as an old merchant or a rich man retired from business, and if he is married, his wife is always young (much too young for him) and never misses an opportunity to deceive him. Just like Pantalone, the scholarly Dottore, with his advanced degree from the University of Bologna, is the victim of the pranks of his servants, daughter, and wife. In general, although both figures are gulled or tricked, the role of the Dottore provides a foil for Pantalone, one that can stand alongside his and yet become at times rather less serious, deviating more frequently from the former's gravity. The Dottore generally shows himself as more pompous and certainly more lascivious than his companion, and his adventures with serving maids and others are numerous.

The servants were originally numerous and not identifiable, so that many of the early companies' zanni would also use their last names, both for the actors as well as the masks, for example, Zan Padella, Zan Capocchio, and Zan Ganassa. If the names of Dottore and Pantalone for the magnifichi are self-explanatory, the term “zanni” for the servants is believed to originate either from the Latin Sannio (buffoon) or, more probably, as a derivation from Giovanni because in Lombardy g is pronounced and often written as a z, and this is particularly true of Giovanni and his diminutive Gian (Schwartz 34).

Zanni, from whose name the English word “zany” derives, always speaks in a loud, coarse voice because his comic type is based on that of the Venetian market porter who had to make himself heard offering his service above the clamor of the piazza and the rest of the traders if he was not to go hungry. A Bergamask peasant up from the country, seeking to earn a living portering and odd-jobbing in the town of northern Italy, Zanni is at the bottom of the pecking order. He is that regrettably eternal unfortunate, the dispossessed immigrant worker. With his baggy, white costume, originally made of flour sacks, Zanni suffers from the spasms of an ancestral hunger, which is his basic, everyday condition.

Starting with the earliest commedia dell'arte, the scenarios had at least two zanni, if not more: the first one foxy and astute, the second more naïve and silly (il furbo and il stupido). The evolution of the first zanni in Scapino and later on in Brighella and of the second zanni in Arlecchino is, although accurate, overly simple. There are many early plays of the sixteenth century where both Zanni and Arlecchino appear, side by side, although by the beginning of the following century in northern Italy the name Zanni is usually replaced by Scapino (scappare, to run away) or, later on, by Brighella and Arlecchino for, respectively, the first and second zanni. In southern Italy the second zanni, still wearing the same ample white zanni frock, takes the name of Pullicinello and later on Pulcinella (little chick), the ancestor of Punch and Judy.

There are important, consistent differences between the first and second zanni. The first one (Brighella) hesitates at nothing. He has no conscience, while his assistance is invaluable in executing such trivial commissions as the murder of a rival. If a love intrigue is to be planned and carried out, or some money is to be removed from the guarded possession of Pantalone or Dottore, Brighella is the inventive genius who will find a way. Women do not like him. If they suffer his insolent advances, it is because they fear him. His full name is Brighella (from briga, trouble, and cavillo, pretext) because of his ability to find a solution for every difficulty. With his green and white valet uniform, whenever he appears he is always the first zanni, the boss of all servants. All his relationships are exploitative, and he loves nobody, contrary to the second zanni (Arlecchino), who instead is always in love, albeit unfaithfully so.

The second zanni or Arlecchino, who became more and more famous in the French interpretation of the commedia dell'arte (la comédie italienne), was also born a citizen of Bergamo in the Val Brentana, like Brighella. It was said that folk from lower Bergamo were always buffoons (naïfs or gulls), while upper Bergamo produced the tricksters or wise fools. Each part of the town produced a clown for the commedia dell'arte: Arlecchino from lower Bergamo and Brighella from the upper town.

Arlecchino, whom both Riccoboni and Goldoni signalized as the more comical of the zanni, exists in a mental world where concepts of morality have no being, and yet, despite such absence of morality, he displays no viciousness. Scholars who favor the connection between Roman mimes and the actors of the commedia dell'arte assert that the patches of his costume have their origin in the tiger's skins worn by the ancient actors who played the part of the young Satyr. Yet another explanation is given in the form of a naïve and enchanting French story. On Mardi Gras every child, boy and girl, enjoyed being dressed up in specially fine clothes once every year. But Arlecchino's parents were very poor, and they could not afford an elegant costume for their child. Thus all his friends consulted together and agreed that each should give him a piece of the cloth from his own costume, although not one color matched another. The great day arrived and Arlecchino, to the delight of his friends, put on the multicolored suit his mother had made from all the beautiful pieces (Niklaus 22-23).

Theories for the origin of the name Arlecchino include...

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Criticism: Origins And Development

Anya Peterson Royce (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Royce, Anya Peterson. “The Venetian Commedia: Actors and Masques in the Development of the Commedia Dell'Arte.” Theatre Survey 27, nos. 1-2 (1986): 69-87.

[In the following essay, Peterson Royce traces the origins of the commedia dell'arte to popular street entertainment in Venice.]

The commedia dell'arte, which spanned three centuries from the sixteenth to the beginning of the nineteenth and nationalities as diverse as Italian, French, Austrian, Polish, and English, went through a number of metamorphoses before it attained the form we now associate with it. Very briefly, that form is based on stock characters (Arlecchino, Pantalone, Il...

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Kenneth Richards and Laura Richards (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Richards, Kenneth, and Laura Richards. “Antecedents” and “The Emergence of Professional Companies.” In Commedia dell'Arte: A Documentary History, pp. 11-19, 32-40. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, the critics give the early history of the commedia dell'arte, beginning with its limited connection to classical sources and its more likely origins in the popular entertainments of the Venetian Carnival.]


A number of very early comments on the commedia dell'arte, dating from the sixteenth century, assume a derivation at least from Roman times, but although they have the apparent...

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