Pantalone, or Pantalone de' bisognosi, Italian for 'Pantalone of the needy', is one of the most important principal characters found in commedia dell'arte. With his exceptional greed and status at the top of the social order, Pantalone is "money" in the commedia world.
Commedia productions date back to Italy around the year 1560, making the origin for Pantalone's character quite difficult to determine. The most common explanation for the name "Pantalone" comes from the Italian phrase pianta leone, translated as "plant the lion." The lion may, in fact, refer to the emblem of the Republic of Venice, and Venice's conquests around the globe where Venetians had literally "planted the lion" flag. Another explanation is that the name comes from Saint Pantaleon (in Italian Pantaleone), a saint venerated in Venice. Pantalone's character is always a Venetian old man, "a rich and almost miserly old merchant, always decrepit and stumbling." Pantalone is thought to be greatly based on the old Venetian merchants of the time, known for their stingy and less-than-pleasant personalities.
The character of Pantalone is entirely based on money and ego, for he has the highest regards for his intelligence, "but at every step he becomes the butt for every conceivable kind of trick". With little else to occupy his thoughts after a life as a tradesman or merchant, Pantalone is the metaphorical representation of money in the commedia world. Pantalone is usually the father to one of the lovers, another stock character found in commedia. He is driven to keep his child and their respective lover apart. Pantalone is presented either as a widower or bachelor, and despite his age, makes numerous passes at the women within the commedia world, "though he is always rejected". Pantalone never forgets a deal and his merit is based on actions, not words.
Despite his sinister and often inhumane treatment towards his fellows, Pantalone is perceived to be a pivotal part of commedia. His importance is represented in almost every commedia production; often placing him at the beginning of the comedy. In a commedia comedy, many zanni or lazzi routines will begin by an action delivered by Pantalone himself.
The traditional Pantalone stance is that of a hunch-backed old man. While it would generally be assumed the hunch-backed position may be one of an elderly old man, it is really for the protection of his money bag that generates his apparent frailty. He walks with his hips forward, allowing him to make larger strides when he walks. He often falls backwards, generally to bad news related in some way or another to his financials. When this occurs, he is often amusingly "turtle-like" and is often stuck in that position until assisted. None of Pantalone's physical actions should look easy, for his is truly "the oldest of the old".
Pantalone's character has persisted through the decades; "were we to seek his present-day counterpart we should not be far wrong in thinking of a middle-aged businessman, wealthy and well esteemed, apt at times to dally with ladies full of doubtful virtue, at other times as apt to show himself the devoted father anxious to protect a young son or puzzled by the actions of a daughter he does not understand". Parts of his character, from the overprotective father to the greedy man concerned with nothing but his wealth, are traits familiar to today's pop-culture world. On the television show The Simpsons, Mr. Burns, owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant and the richest citizen of Springfield, is perhaps the epitome of the Pantalone character. He is greedy, stingy, and occasionally downright mean. Mr. Krabs from Spongebob Squarepants is also a rich miser who is protective of his daughter.
Pantalone is one of the most complex characters found in commedia dell'arte and is arguably the most important character in any commedia production. Commedia would not have the true commedia-essence without the eternally bitter Pantalone, driven to protect and control the money and keep the lovers apart. He is a true nod to the development of Italian comedy, providing humor, absurdity, and even some pity from audiences who frequent the commedia-scene.
- Robert Henke Performance and literature in the commedia dell'arte, Improvisation and characters, Individual roles, pp.19-24
- Harper, Douglas. "pantaloons". Online Etymology Dictionary..
- Allardyce Nicoll The World of Harlequin, a Critical Study of the Commedia Dell'arte, pp.47
- John Rudlin: Commedia Dell'arte: An Actor's Handbook, p.182
- Duchartre, Pierre Louis. translated by Randolph T. Weaver. The Italian Comedy. New York: Dover Publications, 1966. ISBN 0-486-21679-9
- See Angela Carter's 'The Bloody Chamber' (specific short story, Puss in Boots) for another representation of Pantalone. The interpretation renames him as the character 'Pantaloon', but he follows a very similar description and ends up dead.