What is Harlequin?

Meaning and Definition of Harlequin

Harlequin is a character originating from the Italian comedy commedia dell’arte . This comic character , a kind of jester, has characteristics that quickly identify him: he makes a lot of trouble and is complicated, boastful and lazy.

Sometimes, he is depicted as naive and gallantly gentle. In the dictionary, Harlequin is also a common name: if someone is called “ harlequin ”, it means that he is an irresponsible or volatile person (he constantly changes his mind). In addition, he is synonymous with bully and quarrelsome.

The Commedia dell’arte

Commedia dell’arte, also known as Italian comedy or commedia all’improviso, appeared in the 16th century in Italy and remained popular in Europe until the 18th century. It was successful and obtained versions mainly in France and England. It is marked by social satire , that is, the stories told criticized the customs of the society of the time.

This type of comedy is marked by performances in the streets and in public squares , by the collective creation of the actors and by the improvisation of the cast based on a script defined by the director. In the traditional plot, there is usually a pair of lovers, whose passion is hampered by the girl’s father or by an old man who wants to marry her. Next comes Harlequin, the bumbling clerk who will create a lot of confusion in the scene.

The companies (groups) of the commedia dell’arte were itinerant: they appeared from city to city. The actors asked permission to perform in a certain village and settled there for a while. Performances were often held on small stages or even on floats.

In the group, each actor invented his actions and dialogues (speeches) on the scene, also based on the main characteristics of his character. But, since improvisation was one of the main ingredients , the actors had to be agile, responding quickly to jokes and plots made by their colleagues.

Harlequin and other Characters

Like Harlequin, there were other famous characters in the commedia dell’arte , easily identifiable by their clothes and masks . They were generally divided into three groups: the passionate, the sullen and stingy old men, who acted like bosses, and the clumsy employees.

Pantaleón, for example, was an old merchant, flirtatious and clumsy, who fell easily in love with a young woman and was the butt of the jokes of the employees. The Captain was a pompous military man who posed as a hero, but he was a bit of a coward and was part of the group of elders.

Among the couples in love are Horácio and Isabela, who used to be the children of the bosses. In the group of servants were Colombina and Pierrô. Colombina was smart and always took advantage of every situation. Loyal to her boss, Pierrô (her name comes from Pedrolino), she always sighed with love for Colombina, who was in love with Harlequin .

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