Commedia dell’Arte

Recognising Commedia dell’Arte


Commedia dell’Arte can be translated as: ‘theatre of the professional artist’ or ‘the comedy of skills’. Its full name is commedia dell'arte all'improvviso ('comedy through the art of improvisation') and it is also known as ‘Italian comedy’


Commedia began in Italy during the Renaissance in the sixteenth century, but there is some evidence that its origins are in ancient Greek and Roman theatre.

From the first performances in Italy around 1570, Commedia quickly spread throughout Europe. It is a colourful and extremely theatrical art form, based on the interaction of traditional stock characters in improvised scenarios that drive a comic plot towards a humorous climax. 

The legacy of Commedia includes the first incorporated (i.e. professional) theatre companies, the first European actresses and many of the themes and storylines still enjoyed by audiences today.

Performance style

Accessible improvisation

Commedia troupes consisted of twelve or so professional performers, each a specialist in his or her stock character. There were no playwrights or directors. The company manager (capocomico) would announce the title and theme of an evening’s performance, making a scenario or canovaccio available to the performers. The scenarios were approximately three pages long and described the basic plot points of the story with character entrances and exits. The dialogue was never scripted and the actors would collaborate together to improvise a unique performance at every show. 

Performances were accessible to all social classes because the actors used mime, stereotyped stock characters, traditional lazzi's (signature stunts, gags and pranks) broad physical gestures, improvised dialogue and clowning. Each performance was a showcase of skilful technique; carefully rehearsed physical comedy routines and live improvisation.

Props, costumes and masks

Commedia troupes travelled with everything they needed; costumes, props and portable staging that could be set up in any outdoor public space. Even successful troupes with wealthy patrons and indoor performing spaces kept props and scenery to a minimum to keep the focus on performance skills, rather than spectacle. Props included animals, food, furniture and weapons. The character Arlecchino (Harlequin) carried two sticks tied together, which made a great noise on impact. This gave birth to the word ‘slapstick.’

Commedia performers wore masks with exaggerated comic features to draw attention to themselves and to complement their physical and acrobatic skills. Masks forced actors to project their characters' emotions through the body. Leaps, tumbles, stock gags (burle and lazzi) and obscene gestures were incorporated into their acts.


All Commedia plots were simple; two young lovers (the innamorati) were kept apart by the old men (il vecchi) who were either fathers, guardians or elderly suitors. The servants (zanni) helped to outwit the old men and bring the lovers together.

Stock characters


The actors of the Commedia represented fixed stereotypes (tipi fissi), for example, foolish old men, devious servants, or military officers full of false bravado. A Commedia actor usually played the same stock character for most of his or her career. The main characters were as follows:

Il vecchi (the old men)

Master characters who were noblemen: 

Pantalone — The master

A wealthy, miserly old man from Venice, who was always being cuckolded. (picture) In many storylines, his aim was to control his daughter and protect his money from thieving servants, but he was always thwarted. 

  • Costume: Tight-fitting long red trousers or red breeches and stockings, a short, tight-fitting jacket, a loose long black cloak with plain sleeves, red-woollen skull-cap and yellow Turkish slippers. He wore a money purse on his belt and carried a huge dagger
  • Mask: a large hooked nose, wrinkled face and bushy eyebrows
  • Examples: See Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act 2 sc 7) ‘the lean slipper’d pantaloon / With spectacles on nose and pouch at side’.

Il Dottore — The Doctor

Pantalone’s middle-aged neighbour from Bologna was a know-it-all, who claimed to be educated and spoke fake Latin. (picture) He was either Pantalone’s devoted friend or bitter enemy, and he was always jealous of Pantalone’s success. Sometimes he was the father of one of the lovers. 

  • Costume: Black academic dress, satirising Bolognese scholars. A long jacket and a black coat to his heels, black shoes, stockings, breeches and a black skull-cap
  • Mask: Covered the nose and forehead only. The actor’s cheeks were revealed and often reddened to show Il’ Dottore’s fondness for alcohol.

Il Capitano — The Captain

This character was a boastful, arrogant soldier often portrayed as a Spaniard. (picture) He tried to impress people with stories of his bravery in battle, but he was a coward at heart. Easily frightened, he would scream like a girl if he was surprised. He was often the butt of the jokes and the target of the lazzi

  • Costume: A very fancy exaggerated military uniform, with a plumed hat and a very long sword
  • Mask: A very long nose, wide eyes and sometimes a big handlebar moustache
  • Examples: See Armano in Shakespeare’s Loves Labours Lost and Pistol in Henry IV Part 2

Usually Pantalone and Il Dottore worked as a pair and Il Capitano played the new face in town.

Il zanni (the servants)

Zanni is a diminutive form of the name Giovanni and is common to Bergamo, in Lombardy, where the zanni character originated. The English word ‘zany’ is derived from the antics of these Commedia characters.

Zanni were male servants, clowns and jacks-of-all-trades. They enjoyed practical jokes and intrigue but could be quarrelsome, cowardly, and treacherous. Dei Zanni (‘the zanni’) was also a generic term for the Commedia dell'Arte itself.

Arlecchino (‘Harlequin’)

Image of Harlequin character taken from WikipediaThe main comic figure and the most popular and famous character of Commedia dell’ Arte. A tricky servant, usually to Pantalone, but also frequently Il’ Capitano, or Il’ Dottore.  He was the second zanni if Brighella or Pasquariello were in the company, otherwise he was the most important.

Harlequin was not too bright and often resorted to agility and acrobatics to get out of sticky situations; failing that, he always carried around a slapstick with which to hit people. He was a central figure in Goldoni’s Commedia-based plays written in the first half of the eighteenth century.  

  • Costume: Tight fitting tunic and pants patterned with multi-coloured, triangular patches
  • Mask: A sly, cat-like face, with a blunt, black nose.










Columbina (also ‘Columbine’ or ‘little dove’)

The only female servant character, she was Arlecchino’s female opposite and sometimes his sweetheart.  (picture) She was impudent but often very charming and one of the few genuinely intelligent characters on stage. As confidante of the leading lady (inamorata), she was often employed by the lovers to help them convince their feuding parents to let them marry.

This character type was originally called sobretta and the French translation soubrette is still in use in opera and musical theatre. 

  • Costume: Dressed like her mistress or in the same pattern of material as Arlechinno, but always wore a small apron to show she was a servant. She often carried a tambourine or a basket
  • Mask: Sometimes wore a small half mask, but often appeared unmasked.


Arlecchino's older brother or his dishonest, rascally friend. He played a high status servant, a bartender, innkeeper or shopkeeper. He was a cowardly villain who would do anything for money. He was thieving, mean-spirited, and occasionally violent, especially to characters who had a lower social position. 

  • Costume: His wore white outfits with a green trim. (picture) His main prop was a knife which he used not to stab others, but to cut the strings of their money bags to steal their money. Sometimes, like Arlecchino, he carried a slapstick
  • Mask: A green half mask.

Pulcinella (‘Mr Punch’)

Pulcinella’s character was directly descended from classical Roman theatre characters called Bucco and Maccus and he would identify himself with either one or the other in performance. His character changed with the locale and the actor portraying him. Generally Pulcinella represented the poor worker from Naples, the man with very little to lose. He often had nothing to do with the plot, but provided an external source of comedy.

Pulcinella was always self-centred; either stupid but pretending to be clever, or clever yet pretending to be stupid. He loved to pick a fight and then to shed blood. He talked about himself in the third person and was unable to keep a secret. Physically portrayed as a potbellied hunchbacked wife beater, with a distinctive voice sounding like a chicken squawk, he became the ‘swazzle’ voice used in Punch and Judy shows.

  • Costume: He generally wore a long baggy white blouse, tied around the waist with a leather belt; baggy white trousers and white sugar-loaf hat or a white skull cap. He carried a large club and a purse and had a hump on his back and a huge pot belly.
  • Mask: Pulcinella’s mask was dark brown or black, with a worried, wrinkled brow, many warts, and a very large, parrot-like nose.


Other zanni

Pedrolino – A comic servant or clown (Pierrot in French and English) often pining with unrequited love for Columbina

Mezzetino – A male comic servant

Scapino – A male comic servant who flits from one idea/activity to the next, creating confusion

Scaramuccia – A male comic servant (Scaramouche in French) often affecting high flown language

Coviello – A similar character to Pulcinella. He could also be a friend of the Capitano.

Tartaglia – An older man, often a friend of Il Dottore

Rosetta - A female servant, a maid or the wife of Pulcinella.

Gli inamorati — The young lovers

These characters were usually the daughters and sons of the vecchi, and thus enjoyed a high status in society. They almost always illustrated the play’s dilemma — whether to follow their hearts or obey the wishes of their parents. They were more serious than the other characters and did not wear masks. They were always youthful, argumentative, scheming and either handsome or beautiful.

  • They could be (and often were) children of other principal characters
  • They were expert in the arts of courtship and loved to write sonnets
  • They fell madly in love, then into despair, and were suspicious and jealous
  • They argued, made up and, in the end, flew into each other’s arms on their way toward an ideal marriage
  • A male lover (innamorato) usually had a romantic name like Flavio, Lelio or Ottavio
  • The lady (innamorata) was the ‘beloved’ with a name like Isabella, Flaminia, Vittoria or Lavinia.
  • Costume: Whether male or female, the lovers are always dressed in the height of fashion
  • Mask: Because the greatest appeal of the lovers was their beauty, they did not wear masks
  • Examples: Romeo in Shakepeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing start out as typical inamorato.

Physical and situational comedy

The lazzi

Many of the Commedia scenarios reference ‘lazzi’ or an individual ‘lazzo’; a comedic routine that was well rehearsed and known to the individual actors portraying the characters. These routines often needed to be very well rehearsed, because otherwise someone could get hurt, as the routines involved a lot of physical comedy.

Some typical lazzi were:

  • Lazzo of the chase: With a drawn sword, the Captain chases Coviello. They remain on the stage in a stationary position as they mime running, each slightly out of reach of the other. As they run, each begins to acknowledge the audience’s response
  • Lazzo of the chairs: Brandino is guarding Ottavio as they both sit in chairs. Attempting to escape, Ottavio moves his chair slightly. Brandino follows. Ottavio drags his chair halfway across the stage with Brandino in pursuit. They smile at each other as the bid to escape continues
  • Lazzo of the luggage: Arriving in the city, the Captain and Burattino both carry heavy luggage. The Captain asks Burattino if he can hold onto his luggage for a minute and starts to walk away. Burattino replies that he has to tie his shoe and gives the Captain all the luggage, who promptly throws it back at Burattino
  • Lazzo of looking everywhere and finding nothing: Zanni is asked to find an object or person right in front of him. Looking everywhere but at that spot, Zanni announces that it’s not there
  • Lazzo of learning French: The inamorata is learning French (or any other language) from an instructor, and every word which she is taught sounds like a swear word, appalling her. Shakespeare used this lazzo in Henry V Act 3 Sc 4 where the French Princess Katharine is learning English and is offended at being taught words like 'foot' and 'gown' which sound obscene in her own language.

The influence of Commedia dell’arte

The influence of Commedia has been widespread throughout European performing arts. 

The characters and theatrical styles of Commedia can still be seen in:

  • Theatre (Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing; Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni; One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean; Les Fourberies de Scapin by Molière, The Figaro plays of Pierre Beaumarchais, Steven Berkoff's adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis)
  • Opera (Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, Le Nozze de Figaro, Don Giovanni and Leoncavallo's tragic melodrama Pagliacci)
  • Ballet (Igor Stravinsky's Petrushka and Pulcinella)
  • Contemporary musical theatre (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Sweeney Todd)
  • Television sit-coms (Blackadder, Fawlty Towers)
  • Improvisational comedy (Whose Line is it Anyway?)
  • Silent films of the 1920s (Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy)
  • British Carry On films from the 1950s-70s
  • Pantomime
  • Punch and Judy shows
  • Vaudeville
  • Victorian melodrama
  • Pierrot shows (concert parties)
  • Classic cartoon characters (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote).
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.