Commedia dell'Arte Criticism: Overviews - Essay

Criticism: Overviews

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 4131 words.)