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For other uses, see Harlequin (disambiguation).
"Arlecchino" redirects here. For the opera by Busoni, see Arlecchino (opera).
The classical appearance of the Harlequin stock character in the commedia dell'arte of the 1670s, complete with batte or "slapstick", in origin a magic wand used by the devil character to change the scenery of the play.[1] (Maurice Sand, 1860)

Harlequin (/ˈhɑrləˌkwɪn/; Italian: Arlecchino, French: Arlequin) is the most well known of the zanni or comic servant characters from the Italian Commedia dell'arte. Traditionally believed to have been introduced by Zan Ganassa in the late 16th century,[2] the role was definitively popularized by the Italian actor Tristano Martinelli in Paris in 1584–1585[3] and became a stock character after Martinelli's death in 1630. The Harlequin character came to England early in the 17th century and took center stage in the derived genre of the Harlequinade, developed in the early 18th century by the Lincoln's Fields Theatre's actor-manager John Rich, who played the role under the name of Lun.[4]

The Harlequin is characterized by his chequered costume. His role is that of a light-hearted, nimble and astute servant, often acting to thwart the plans of his master, and pursuing his own love interest, Colombina, with wit and resourcefulness, often competing with the sterner and melancholic Pierrot. He later develops into a prototype of the romantic hero. Harlequin inherits his physical agility and his trickster qualities, as well as his name, from a mischievous "devil" character in medieval passion plays.

In Victorian England, the Harlequin was routinely paired with the clown figure. The clown with his brutishness acted as a foil for the more sophisticated Harlequin. The most influential such pair were the Payne Brothers, active during the 1860s and 1870s, substantially shaping the 20th-century "slapstick" genre.


Further information: Herla, Erlking and Alichino (devil)

The name Harlequin is taken from that of a mischievous "devil" or "demon" character in popular French passion plays. It originates with an Old French term herlequin, hellequin, first attested in the 11th century, by the chronist Orderic Vitalis, who recounts that he was pursued by a troop of demons when wandering on the coast of Normandy at night. These demons were led by a masked, club-wielding giant and they were known as familia herlequin (var. familia herlethingi). This medieval French version of the Germanic Wild Hunt, Mesnée d'Hellequin, has been connected to the English figure of Herla cyning ("host-king"; German Erlkönig).[5] Hellequin was depicted a black-faced emissary of the devil, roaming 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 red-and-black mask.[6][7] The name also appears as that of a devil, as Alichino, in Dante's Inferno (cantos 21 to 23).[8][9]


A scene from the commedia dell'arte played in France before a noble audience in 1571 or 1572. Pantalone is front and center, while to his right and slightly behind is Harlequin in motley costume, "the oldest known version of Harlequin's costume."[10]

The first known appearance on stage of a Harlequin figure is dated to 1262, the character of a masked and hooded devil in Jeu da la Feuillière by Adam de la Halle, and it became a stock character in French passion plays.

The re-interpretation of the "devil" stock character as a zanni character of the commedia dell'arte[11] took place in the 16th century. Zan Ganassa, whose troupe is first mentioned in Mantua in the late 1560s, was one of the earliest known actors believed to have performed the part.[4] The patched costume is due to Tristano Martinelli, whose zanni wore a linen costume of colourful patches, and a hare-tail on his cap to indicate cowardice. Martinelli's Harlequin also had a black leather half-mask, a moustache and a pointed beard. The name Harlequin (Arlequin) was Martinelli's choice for his character, loaned from the name of the popular French devil character it resembled. He was very successful, performing in Italy and in France, even playing at court and becoming a favourite of Henry IV of France, to whom he addressed insolent monologues (Compositions de Rhetorique de Don Arlequin, 1601).[12] Martinelli's great success contributed to the perpetuation of his interpretation of the zanni role, along with the name of his character, after his death in 1630, among others, by Nicolò Zecca, active c. 1630 in Bologna as well as Turin and Mantua.[13]

The character was also performed in Paris at the Comédie-Italienne in Italian by Giovan Battista Andreini and Angelo Costantini (c. 1654–1729) and in French as Arlequin in the 1660s by Dominique Biancolelli(it) (1636–1688), who combined the zanni types, "making his Arlecchino witty, neat, and fluent in a croaking voice, which became as traditional as the squawk of Punch."[4] The Italians were expelled from France in 1697 for satirizing King Louis XIV's second wife, Madame de Maintenon,[14] but returned in 1716 (after his death), when Tommaso Antonio Vicentini ("Thomassin", 1682–1739) became famous in the part.[11][15] The rhombus shape of the patches arose by adaptation to the Paris fashion of the 17th century by Biancolelli.

Characteristics and dramatic function[edit]

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

The primary aspect of Arlecchino was his physical agility.[6][11] 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. 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.


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]


  1. ^ "Rich gave his Harlequin the power to create stage magic in league with offstage craftsmen who operated trick scenery. Armed with a magic sword or bat (actually a slapstick), Rich's Harlequin treated his weapon as a wand, striking the scenery to sustain the illusion of changing the setting from one locale to another. Objects, too, were transformed by Harlequin's magic bat." Mayer, David. "Pantomime, British", Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance, Oxford University Press, 2003.
  2. ^ Duchartre 1929, p. 82; Laurence Senelick in Banham 1995, "Harlequin" p. 472; Rudlin & Crick 2001, pp. 12–13.
  3. ^ Andrews 2008, p. liv, note 32, citing Ferrone, Henke, and Gambelli.
  4. ^ a b c Laurence Senelick in Banham 1995, "Harlequin" p. 472.
  5. ^ first suggested by Martin Rühlemann, Etymologie des wortes harlequin und verwandter wörter (1912). See also Normand R. Cartier, Le Bossu désenchanté: Étude sur le Jeu da la Feuillée, Librairie Droz, 1971, [books.google.ch/books?id=ERF5OUazvTUC&pg=PA132 p. 132].
  6. ^ a b Grantham, B., Playing Commedia, A Training Guide to Commedia Techniques, (Nick Hern Books) London, 2000
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 2012-01-03. 
  9. ^ "harlequin - Definitions from Dictionary.com". Dictionary.reference.com. 
  10. ^ Sterling 1943, p. 20; Duchartre 1929, p. 84.
  11. ^ a b c Rudlin 1994.
  12. ^ Maurice Charney (ed.), Comedy: A Geographic and Historical Guide, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005, [books.google.ch/books?id=Og4ntxFQP2cC&pg=PA239 p. 239]
  13. ^ Boni, Filippo de' (1852). Biografia degli artisti ovvero dizionario della vita e delle opere dei pittori, degli scultori, degli intagliatori, dei tipografi e dei musici di ogni nazione che fiorirono da'tempi più remoti sino á nostri giorni. Seconda Edizione. Venice; Googlebooks: Presso Andrea Santini e Figlio. p. p. 1103. 
  14. ^ Donald Roy in Banham 1995, "Comédie-Italienne" pp. 233–234.
  15. ^ Senelick in Banham 1995, "Vicentini" p. 867.


  • Andrews, Richard (2008). The Commedia dell'Arte of Flamino Scala: A Translation and Analysis of 30 Scenarios. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press. ISBN 9780810862074.
  • Banham, Martin, editor (1995). The Cambridge Guide to the Theatre (new edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521434379.
  • Duchartre, Pierre-Louis (1929; Dover reprint 1966). The Italian Comedy. London: George G. Harrap and Co., Ltd. ISBN 0486216799.
  • Ferrone, Siro (2006). Arlecchino. Vita e avventure di Tristano Martinelli attore. Bari: Lateraz. ISBN 9788842078685.
  • Gambelli, Delia (1993). Arlecchino a Parigi. Rome: Bulzoni. ISBN 9788871195803.
  • Henke, Robert (2002). Performance and Literature in the Commedia dell'Arte. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521172387.
  • Oxford Dictionaries article on Harlequin
  • Rudlin, John (1994). Commedia dell’Arte, An actor’s handbook. London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415047708.
  • Rudlin, John; Crick, Olly (2001). Commedia dell'Arte: A Handbook for Troupes. London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415204088.
  • Sterling, Charles (1943). "Early Paintings of the Commedia Dell Arte in France." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New ser., v. 2, no. 1 (Summer, 1943).

External links[edit]