The influence of Commedia dell’Arte in The Taming of the Shrew


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. Shakespeare was aware of this rich dramatic tradition and in Love’s Labour’s Lost he references the Commedia dell’Arte when he refers to Don Adriano de Armado as ‘Brag.’ (for braggart) and to Holofernes as ‘Ped.’ (for pedant). 
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

HarlequinAccessible 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’ (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. Many of these are recognisable within The Taming of the Shrew, 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. 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 scene 7) ‘the lean slipper’d pantaloon / With spectacles on nose and pouch at side’. 
Gremio in The Taming of the Shrew was like the Pantalone, reminding audiences of this character in his attempts to woo Bianca and his obsession with money.

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.
Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew is reminiscent of the Zanni in the Commedia dell’Arte.

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 Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing start out as typical inamorato, as do Bianca and Lucentio in The Taming of the Shrew.

Physical and situational comedy

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. 
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