Italian Renaissance-Commedia dell’Arte



The Commedia dell’Arte was a travelling troupe of players that would put on humorous improv-based productions  throughout Italy in the 16th century.  It was the birth of Improvisation as a performance art and theatre students forever since have celebrated this fun and creative form.

Performances took place on temporary stages, often in the streets. The better troupes performed in palaces and became internationally famous.  The performances would have music, dance, witty dialogue, and all kinds of silliness.  Players would take input from audiences about who, when , and where and improv a scene based upon their character, often making fun of local officials and current affairs.

Each player would have a stock characters, stock situations, and memorized speeches.  A stock imgrescharacters refers to fictional character based on a common social stereotype.  An example is Pantalone was a rich old man that was also very stingy.  His mask would have a long curved nose.  Think Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.  The actor’s would wear masks that covered the upper half of the face and costumes that would signify their character.  They would  move in a specific way that was often associated with an animal.  They also had a special paddle called a SLAPSTICK.  A slapstick was a paddle much like you would see at a fraternity but it had two thin pieces of wood on either side so that when smacked lightly,  it would make a LOUD noise.

Much of the humor would have been physical in nature.  Think the Three Stooges!  A stock joke that the actor’s set up for each other might be that after a scene Pantalone, being so stingy, would bend over to pick up a penny in the street.  As he was old, he would bend from the waist, so that his rear end stuck out.  Harlequin would sneak up behind him and smack him on the rear with a paddle, not really hurting him, but it sounded good!   Pantalone would send himself flying to the ground to roars of laughter.  When he got up, Harlequin would be gone, and Pantalone would be left to blame someone in the audience.

•PANTALONE – He was the old, merchant miser.  He would often play the father or the deceived husband.  his mask had a large hooked nose and he was also a bit of a “dirty old man.”
•DOTTORE -He was the well educated, stuffy lawyer or scientist.  His problem was that he had book smarts, but little street smarts.  He may be smarter than the rest of us, but can’t even see the simple solution to a problem. By the time he comes up with his extremely complicated solution, some else has already solved the dilemma.  Think Sheldon from Big Bang Theory.
•EL CAPITANO – He was the soldier and had a very upright posture.  He was very militaristic, boastful, and brave, or so it seemed.  At the first sign of real danger, he would be the first one hiding or “gaurding the truck” while you go save the girl.   but really cowardly  Think the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz.
•HARLEQUIN (or Arlecchino)- Harlequin was the prankster.  He would playimages imgresservants and comedy roles.  He may not have had a high education, but he had the street smarts and was very mischievous and clever.  He wasn’t evil, but he did everything in his power to thwart the lovers, make his masters look the fool, or get away with some underhanded scheme.  Think Bart Simpson from The Simpsons.  When you look a deck of card and see what looks like a joker in an outfit with diamond shapes on it and a pointy hat, that is actually Harlequin.
•LOVERS – These would not wear masks, as they should be beautiful youths (one male/one female).  They would always be sympathetic to love, dotting over each other at every turn.  Think any love story ever.


There are many more characters, but this just gives you an idea of what the Commedia did.
Here is a video that shows some more from The National Theatre.  Enjoy!