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A form of theater developed in late-Renaissance Italy, Commedia dell'Arte ("artists' comedy") relied on a group of stock characters, whose roles, characteristics, and costumes were well-defined and widely known. The troupe would take a scenario, which would outline the plot, and ad-lib all their dialog and the details of the action.

The Commedia dell'Arte is an ancestor of the British tradition of Pantomime, which also relies on stock characters and audience interaction. It also set the stage (no pun intended) for the Romantic Comedy genre, and has been emulated by the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan, William Shakespeare (The Taming of the Shrew is a particularly good example), Moliere, Bertolt Brecht (expertly retooled the stock characters in Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti) AA Milne (albeit without the romance), and the writers of Blackadder and of Fawlty Towers.

Commedia dell'Arte stock characters usually included:

  • The Lovers (innamorati)
    • The Guy (innamorato): Never masked; not especially well-developed as a character, since his only function is to be in love. His name is usually Lelio, Leandro, or Claudio. Generally in love with himself, and with the idea of being in love, and with the innamorata; if anyone gets any Character Development, it will be him learning to reverse that order.
    • The Girl (innamorata): Never masked; not especially well-developed as a character, since her only function is to be in love. Will have a Pimped-Out Dress. Has a good chance of being named Isabella. Generally in love with herself, and with the idea of being in love, and with the innamorato; if anyone gets any Character Development, it will be her learning to reverse that order.
  • The Old People (vecchi) get in the way of the lovers' happiness; often, two of them (usually the Doctor and Pantalone) are the lovers' respective fathers. The innamorato 's father may want to marry the innamorata himself.
    • The Captain (il Capitano): Blowhard, thinks he's God's gift to women, will turn out to have Feet of Clay. Often serves as the Romantic False Lead. If the innamorato 's biggest rival for the innamorata 's hand isn't his own father, it's this guy. Typically a disliked foreigner, often from Spain (as Spain, the superpower of the time, held political sway over Italy). Usually has an Overly Long Name (very common in Spanish nobility). A variant is Scaramuccia.
    • The Doctor (il Dottore): No, (probably) not that Doctor. Often an Absent-Minded Professor type; often the father of one of the innamorati. If he's the father of the innamorata, then he will rarely have much plot relevance, and will just sort of hang around and be funny. A parody of the Bolognese laureate intellectual (Bologna has one of the world's oldest universities). Mostly portrayed as a doctor in law, usually intersperses his lines with dog Latin and mangled renditions of commonplace Latin sayings for comical effect. Sometimes a Know-Nothing Know-It-All.
    • Pantalone: Often the father of the other innamorato/a. Rich and miserly. Keeps propositioning Colombina, the Dirty Old Man. Is also a Bad Boss to Arlechino. Sometimes an Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist. Based primarily on the stereotype of the rich Venetian merchant. Has a peculiar, shuffling walk, because he's always wearing Turkish sandals.
    • Tartaglia: Defined by his terrible stutter; is often blind as a bat as well. Often a priest, whose main role is to conduct whatever marriages happen at the end.
  • The Servants/Commoners (zanni, from whom we get the word "zany") Frequently the ones to ensure the marriages, as you can't count on the lovers being able to pull it off.
    • Arlecchino (Harlequin): Cheeky but loyal servant to Pantalone or the Doctor; audience favorite; usually drives the action. Can interact with the audience. Forms a Beta Couple with Colombina. Often a Big Eater or Lovable Coward, and tends to suffer Amusing Injuries. Although can also appear as an intelligent and/or amoral trickster. May also be a Bumbling Sidekick. Wears bells on his hat, and an outfit covered in red and black diamonds, and carries the original slap-stick. Known for acrobatic movements on stage. Varients include: Trivelino/Trivelin, Truffa/Truffaldin/Truffaldino, Guazetto, Zaccagnino, and Bagatino.
    • Colombina (Pierrette): Distaff Counterpart of Arlecchino; servant of the innamorata. Forms a Beta Couple with Arlecchino. Often the smartest/sanest person in the play. (What, you thought Women Are Wiser was a recent invention?) Usually plays a musical instrument, sings, dances, or does all three. Wears lots of bright colours. Also can be known as Arlecchina.
    • Pierrot (Pedrolino, Pedro): Loyal, hardworking, dependable servant; the story's Chew Toy. In love with someone, usually Colombina, who doesn't love him back. May be the Sad Clown. Usually dressed almost entirely in white, with a little bit of black. Variants include: Pedrolino, Burrattino, Bertoldo, Pagliaccio, Peppe Nappa, and Gian-Farina.
    • Brighella: Another greedy character, but much less rich than Pantalone. Sometimes a middle class shopkeeper or tavern owner instead of a servant. Has no problem lying through his teeth. Tends to be a Manipulative Bastard and a Lovable Rogue, perhaps even a Magnificent Bastard. Dresses in white with a bit of green, and probably plays the lute. Typically has a small, pointy beard. Variants include: Fenocchio, Flautino, Sbrigani, Franca Trippa/Francatrippa/Francatrippe, Turlupin/Tirelupin, Sgnarelle, and Gandolin.
    • Pulcinella (Punch): A hunchback or otherwise disabled/disfigured character, based on the stooping walk of Renaissance Italian coal carriers. Can be an idiot, can be a Genius Cripple. Very violent, especially towards Arlecchino and Pierrot, and speaks in an unusually squeaky voice. His name means "little chicken".
  • Other characters
    • La Signora: Often the wife of Pantalone and/or the mistress of Pedrolino, she is tough, beautiful and calculating but narcissistic. Sometimes a courtesan and often called Rosaura.
    • Beltrame: similar to Brighella, was either or both a shrewd villager and a blunderer who was always trying to appear of a higher rank than he really is.
    • Scapin/Scapino: similar to Brighella, and often seen as his brother or son, he was the more toned-down version. He's usually more interested in eating or charming a servant girl than carrying out Brighella's villainy.
    • Mezzetino: Often seen as the brother of Brighella, he is fond of the ladies even if they weren't fond of him. His character has many variations: a loyal or scheming servant or a deceitful or cuckolded husband.
    • La Ruffiana: An "old windbag" type; like the rest of the old people, she's out to thwart the innamorati.
    • The Pavironica family:
      • Sandrone: a crude, clever, and cunning peasant.
      • Pulonia: the wife of Sandrone.
      • Sgorghiguelo: the son of Sandrone.


Examples and references in modern media:


Western Animation

  • The characters of Futurama are strikingly like Commedia characters:
    • Arlecchino: Fry
    • Colombina: Leela
    • Brighella: Bender
    • Pantalone: Professor Farnsworth
    • Il Dottore: Dr. Zoidberg
    • Il Capitano: Zap Branigan
    • Innamorati: Amy and Kif
  • As can The Simpsons.
  • Warner Bros.' classic cartoon characters also show their Commedia roots:
    • Bugs Bunny: Scapino
    • Daffy Duck: Arlecchino - due to his tendency to receive slapstick as often as he doles it out
    • Elmer Fudd: Pantalone
    • Porky Pig: Tartaglia
    • Yosemite Sam: Il Capitano
    • Henery Hawk: Scaramouche - small and barely effectual, but not about to let that stop him
    • Wile E. Coyote: Il Dottore - his "education" brings out his foolishness

Music

  • "The Carnival Is Over" by Tom Springfield, a signature song of The Seekers:

 Like a drum my heart was beating

And your kiss was sweet as wine

But the joys of love are fleeting

For Pierrot and Columbine

Literature

  • Characters from Moliere's plays tend to fit in those roles.
    • He was more or less raised on Commedia dell'Arte: he went to see plays with his grandfather on a regular basis.
  • Carlo Goldoni's plays are classic Commedia dell'Arte.
  • It is less evident from the book's final edition, but in The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov two of the devil's servants bear some resemblance to the most popular zanni characters. Koroviev, the talkative trickster dressed in checked clothes brings to mind Arlecchino, and in certain early version of the novel there's a character called "Fiello", a hunchbacked brute with mouth full of fangs, dressed in white, grotesque clothes with bells attached, who seems to have some of Pulcinella's characteristics. The latter was subsequently modified by the writer to become Azazello, another servant of the devil. Azazello lacks any significant resemblance to Commedia dell'Arte characters.
  • Commedia dell'Arte motifs figure in the later Jerry Cornelius stories by Michael Moorcock, particularly The Condition of Muzak and The Entropy Tango.
  • The characters do not fit the archetypes, but in The Vampire Lestat, the title character joins a Commedia dell'Arte troupe in his pre-vampire days. He plays Lelio, and counts his time as an actor among the best experiences in his human life.
  • In John C. Wright's The Golden Age, Phaethon donns a Harlequin outfit for the Masquerade. The Earthmind salutes his fidelity when he greets her. Possibly inspired by this, his foes don the forms of Scaramouche and Columbine to pursue him.
  • Agatha Christie wrote a series of stories featuring a Mr. Harley Quin, who had a knack for turning up where there were two lovers in trouble and, seemingly by chance, saying or doing just the right thing to influence events in their favour. (Being Agatha Christie stories, this often involved inspiring a Eureka Moment in somebody trying to solve a murder, but it didn't always -- and there's at least one Harley Quin story in which nobody dies at all.)
  • The story "Puss-in-Boots" in Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber is essentially a commedia dell'arte play in prose form, with the titular cat helping his owner get in bed with Pantalone's young beautiful wife. Several stock characters of the genre are referred to by name.

Live Action TV

  • The characters of Arrested Development can do this frequently, although the main character, Michael Bluth, can shift between an Innamarata and a Pantalone multiple times in any given episode, most of the time, however, he is Pierrot.
    • The Lovers: George Michael and Maebe, although Maebe tends to also often be the rare female version of Arlecchino.
    • Il Dottore: Dr. Tobias Funke, of course.
    • Pulcinella: Buster Bluth.
    • Il Capitano: GOB and his illegitimate son, Steve Holt.
    • Brighella: George Sr.
    • Pantalone: Lucille usually plays this part, considering her greed and generally bitter nature.
    • Pierrot: Poor, poor Michael Bluth.

Film

  • The cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show fit this pretty well, for the most part.
    • Brad and Janet are the Lovers
    • Eddie makes a passing Arlecchino
    • Columbia working fittingly in as the Colombina.
    • Riff Raff is a dead giveaway as the Pulcinella, hunchback and all.
    • The Narrator is perfect as the Doctor, with
    • Frankie as a combo Pantalone/Captain.
    • The others would be a bit of a stretch- presumably Rocky as the Pierrot, Magenta as the Brighella, and Dr. Scott as the Tartaglia.
  • Sweeney Todd might be seen as a very twisted version:
    • Anthony and Joanna, of course, are the inamorati.
    • Judge Turpin is Pantalone, Pirelli is il Capitano, and Beadle Bamford is some evil twin of Brighella.
    • Todd himself and Mrs Lovett are Arlecchino and Columbina, making Toby Pierrot.

Comic Books

  • Harlequin Valentine, by Neil Gaiman, is explicitly based on commedia dell'arte tropes, with Harlequin as a trickster spirit romancing a mortal woman (who is, in the Columbine spirit, the sanest and most sensible character, and things don't go quite as expected). Along the way, Harlequin nominates the other characters as filling various stock roles, although it's ambiguous whether this is genuine insight or just a case of labelling people according to his preconceptions.
  • In one of the volumes of De Cape et de Crocs, a group of protagonists who get captured, are forced to perform one of these for their captors.

Web Comics

  • Commedia 2X00 uses the Commedia dell'Arte characters and plot as a vehicle, except in the skewed sci-fi/video-game setting of the Twenty-Xth Century; Dottore is a deranged cyberneticist who loses his funding for crimes against nature and arranges for his daughter Isa to marry billionaire Mr. Pants in exchange for a massive dowry, despite the fact that Isa is in love with Mr. Pants' son Flave. Dottore's project is the creation of Super Fighting Cyborgs. So far the only one we've seen is Arlecchino, who in a shout-out to Mega Man, "having a strong sense of loyalty, volunteered to be converted to a Super Fighting Cyborg."
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