File:Mother and child with Harlequin 18th century.jpg

Mother and child with Harlequin, unknown Flemish painter, 18th century

Harlequin (or Arlecchino in Italian, Arlequin in French, and Arlequín in Spanish) is the most popularly known of the zanni or comic servant characters from the Italian Commedia dell'arte and its descendant, the Harlequinade. The Harlequin is also known to be a type of clown.

Origins[edit | edit source]

One of the origins postulated for the modern Harlequin is Hellequin, a stock character in French passion plays. Hellequin, a black-faced emissary of the devil, is said to have roamed the countryside with a group of demons chasing the damned souls of evil people to Hell. The physical appearance of Hellequin offers an explanation for the traditional colours of Harlequin's mask (red and black).[1][2]

Hellequin is the leader of la Mesnée d'Hellequin, thought to be related to the Old English Herla, a character often identified with Woden.[3][4]

Although illustrations of Arlecchino have only been dated as far back as 1572, the character had existed before this date. The origins of the name are uncertain: some say it comes from Dante's Inferno, XXI, XXII and XXIII; one of the devils in Hell having the name Alichino.

Popular theories suggest that he may have come from France, Africa, or Italy.[1]

The Harlequin character may have been based on or influenced by the Zanni archetype who, although a slow thinker, was acrobatic and nimble.[5] Interpreted thus, Harlequin's distinctive motley costume may be a stylized variant of Zanni's plain white garb, designed to reflect the ad-hoc patching necessary to prevent the garment's degradation.

Characteristics and dramatic function[edit | edit source]

File:SAND Maurice Masques et bouffons 01.jpg

Harlequin, by Maurice Sand

The primary aspect of Arlecchino was his physical agility.[1][5] While generally depicted as stupid and gluttonous, he was very nimble and performed the sort of acrobatics the audience expected to see. The character would never perform a simple action when the addition of a cartwheel, somersault, or flip would spice up the movement.

Within these restrictions the character was tremendously elastic. Various troupes and actors would alter his behaviour to suit style, personal preferences, or even the particular scenario being performed. Some of the most famous actors were Tomaso Visentini ("Thomassin"), who performed with the Comédie-Italienne in 18th century France, and Tristano Martinelli.[5]

File:Tivoli Gardens - Harlequin.jpg

Harlequin at the Pantomime Theatre in Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark

He is typically cast as the servant of an innamorato or vecchio much to the detriment of the plans of his master. Arlecchino often had a love interest in the person of Colombina, or in older plays any of the Soubrette roles, and his lust for her was only superseded by his desire for food and fear of his master. Occasionally, Arlecchino would pursue the innamorata, though rarely with success, as in the Recueil Fossard of the 16th century where he is shown trying to woo Donna Lucia for himself by masquerading as a foreign nobleman. He also is known to try to win any given lady for himself if he chances upon anyone else trying to woo her, by interrupting or ridiculing the new competitor.

He eventually became something more of a romantic hero around the 18th century, when his popularity provoked the Harlequinade.

Variants[edit | edit source]

File:Harlequin - Paul Cézanne.JPG

Harlequin, 1888–1890, Paul Cézanne

Duchartre lists the following as variations on the Harlequin role:

Trivelino or Trivelin. Name is said to mean "Tatterdemalion." One of the oldest versions of Harlequin, dating to the 15th century. Costume almost identical to Harlequin's, but had a variation of the 17th century where the triangular patches were replaced with moons, stars, circles and triangles. In 18th century France, Trivelino was a distinct character from Harlequin. They appeared together in a number of comedies by Pierre de Marivaux including L'Île des esclaves.

Truffa, Truffaldin or Truffaldino. Popular characters with Gozzi and Goldoni, but said to be best when used for improvisations. By the 18th century was a Bergamask caricature.

Guazetto. Costume like the old Zanni's but accessorized with a sort of poncho, or otherwise a giant three-tiered collar. Known for his dancing.

Zaccagnino. Character dating to the 15th century.

Bagatino. A juggler.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Grantham, B., Playing Commedia, A Training Guide to Commedia Techniques, (Nick Hern Books) London, 2000 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Grantham" defined multiple times with different content
  2. Jean-Claude Schmitt (1999). Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-73888-8. 
  3. "Online Etymology Dictionary". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 2012-01-03.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "harlequin - Definitions from Dictionary.com". Dictionary.reference.com. Retrieved 2012-01-03.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Rudlin, J., Commedia dell’Arte, An actor’s handbook, Routledge, London, 1994

External links[edit | edit source]

16x16px Media related to Harlequin at Wikimedia Commons
12px Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Harlequin" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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