A cast of characters

Stereotypes on stage with the Commedia dellarte

Jasmina Nogo
April 19, 2007

From the buffo character of Arlecchino to the extravagant flirt Pulcinella, the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte have provided entertainment for centuriesand their appeal remains strong even today. This form of improvisationaltheater originated in Italy in the 15th century and diminished as a popular artform by the 18th century but not before leaving its permanent mark on theater.Its several ‘stock characters’ represent stereotypical traits associated withpeople from various cities across Italy—and they are often symbolic of thecities themselves.

 

Performance themes revolve around a repertory of conventional theatrical situations, suchas adultery, jealousy, old age and love. Dialogue and actions were tailored tobecome topical and were often adjusted to satirize local scandals, current events,or regional tastes, mixed with ancient jokes and punch lines. The generalplotline of each piece centers on two young innamorati whose love is forbidden by the vecchio, or ‘old’ characters. The skits play upongenerational clashes, where characters called zannihelp the young couple overcome the taboo of their love affair. Fortunately,more often than not, young love triumphs.

 

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Commedia is its vibrant cast of regionalcharacters. Here’s a closer look at four key players and the towns theyrepresent.

 

ARLECCHINO: THE STOCK CHARACTER OF BERGAMO

 

Arlecchino is a poor, illiterate servant from thetown of Bergamo, who leaves his home in search of fortune in Venice. As anacrobat and clown, he is the founder of slapstick comedy. The ‘stick’ that gaverise to the term was the baton he used to bash other characters. Arlecchinoplays on the stereotype of the self-interested man. Despite his poverty andapparent ignorance, he’s quite cunning and resourceful. Early in its history,Bergamo was under Venetian rule. Arlecchino reflects this power struggle in thesense that he often acts as a servant to rich merchants from Venice. Bergamoalso suffered in the shadow of neighboring Milan,  and its triumphs were frequently belittled by any trueBergamasco. People from this town were known for constantly struggling to climbup the ladder of material success and economic wealth and were often forced toleave their homeland to seek success elsewhere.

 

IL DOTTORE: THE STOCK CHARACTER OF BOLOGNA

 

Il dottore is an aristocrat who travels to Bologna in pursuit ofa university degree. He is rolling in ‘old money’ and plays one of the wealthy vecchio characters who forbid the comedy’s lovers to pursuetheir budding relationship. The doctor, known as a glutton of fine cuisine andgood wine, is easily recognizable, thanks to his rotund figure.

 

Home toaristocrats who freely enjoyed their wealth, Bologna was known as a place whereone could easily indulge in the extravagances of life. The city is home to theoldest university in Europe and has always been considered one of Italy’srichest and well-planned urban centers. Over the years, Bologna has earneditself tell-tale nicknames like la dotta (thelearned one) and la grassa (the fat one), references to its famousuniversity and its fine cuisine. With his over-indulgence and love of food andworldly pleasures, il dottore character exemplifies the stereotypical Bolognese man.

 

PANTALONE: THE STOCK CHARACTER OF VENICE

 

Pantalone, a rich and miserly merchant, isanother one of the Commedia’s vecchiocharacters. He represents the merchant class of Venice, often employingArlecchino of Bergamo. He treats his employee cruelly, and his hard-heartednessreminds the audience that throughout history, merchants in Venice were oftenaccused of mistreating the working class. As port city on the Adriatic andundisputed center of power and commerce, the Venetian Republic was well knownfor its navy and army. It had a reputation for being a city of invulnerablecitizens and high-class merchants. Pantalone’s frugal character reflects theisland city’s style of dress and holds a mirror up to the Venetian mentalityand its stereotypes.

 

PULCINELLA: THE STOCK CHARACTER OF NAPLES

 

Pulcinella is a hunchback whose constant pursuitof women provides the Commedia with additional comic relief. He’s associatedwith Naples and plays on the Neopolitan stereotype of womanizer and prankster.Naples is infamous for its underground economy and is known for being lessindustrious than its northern counterparts. Its citizens pride themselves ontheir ability to take it slow and enjoy life. Pulcinella often has his way withwomen and is both lighthearted and playful in nature. Enjoyed for his goodjokes, astute character and incurable charm, Pulcinella’s character is alarger-than-life depiction of the Neapolitan temperament.

 

Many stagecharacters have been modeled on the quintessential archetypes of the Commedia.Shakespeare, for example, adopted several of its vivid elements in The Taming of the Shrew, as did Moliere in The Miser. Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella was also undoubtedly influenced by these players.Surprisingly, even the rock band Queen has chosen themes and imagery from theCommedia dell’Arte, most notably in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and to create the coverof the album Innuendo. Although the Commedia dell’Arte reached its peakbefore the 18th century, giving way to other forms of theatrical art, itcertainly played a significant role in determining how people perceive theatertoday.

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