Character Analysis



Has an enduring, magical power, a testimony perhaps to the mystery of its origin.  Theories include extreme suggestion, for example that he takes his name from a water-bird with irregular patches of diverse colour called ‘harle’ or ‘herle’.  But in Italian ‘ino’ is a diminutive and all Arlechinno’s younger brothers have a similar ending to their name:  Fritellino (= ‘little brother’ – fratello + ino); Trivellino (- ‘little agile one’); Truffaldino (= ‘little trougher’ or ‘truffer’), so it is likely his name means simply Hellechinno (= ‘little devil’).  Dante refers to a devil by the name of Ellechino.  – Rudlin

Several authorities have maintained that the name Harlequin originated as a sobriquet.  It is said that a leader of Parliament named Hachille du Harlay became the patron of one of the actors in an Italian troupe, who was thenceforth dubbed Harlayquino.  According to Johanneau and Esmangard, the name is supposed to be the diminutive of harle, or herle, a water-bird with varigated plumage. – Duchartre



Servant, usually to Pantalone, but also frequently Il’Capitano, or Il’ Dottore.  Second zanni if Brighella or Pasquariello are in the company, otherwise first.  The later the piece, the more major the role:  he has a minor function in Flaminio Scala’s collection of scenarios, Il teatro delle favole rappresentative (1611), but is a central figure in Goldoni’s Commedia-based plays written in the first half of the eighteenth century. – Rudlin

A tight-fitting long jacket and trousers, sewn over with random, odd-shapen patches of green, yellow, red and brown – possibly remnants of leaves…  The jacket is laced down the front with a thong and caught by a black belt worn very low on the hips.  The shoes are flat and black .  He wears a beret, or later a malleable felt hat with a narrow brim, with a feather or tail of a fox, apparently this was a sign of the wearer being a butt of ridicule.  There is a sentimental French story of Arlequin’s friends giving him the off-cuts of their mardi gras costumes for the poor boy to make one of his own, but the Italian Arlechinno has patches which are sewn on, rather than the sewn together lozenges of the later French Arlequin and English Harlequin.  A shape-shifter:  he frequently adopts disguises and cross-dresses without demur.  – Rudlin

There were varicolored patches, darker than the background of the costume, sewn here and there on the breeches and the long jacket laced in front.  Hhis soft cap was in the mode of Charles IX, of Francois I, or of Henry II; it was almost always decorated with the tail of a rabbit, hare or fox, or sometimes with a tuft of feathers.  This attire had much definite character in itself, and might be considered a conventialized and ironic treatment of the dress of a tatterdemalion.  It was not until the 17th century that the patches took the form of blue, red and green triangles which were arranged in a symmetrical pattern and joined together by a slender yellow braid.  At the end of the 17th century the triangles became diamond-shaped lozenges, the jacket was shortened, and a double pointed hat took the place of the toque.  – Duchartre

A diamond pattern of reds, greens, yellows and browns, with red tights and large pockets inside his jerkin to pull things from (rather than other places).  His sleeves have spaces for the yellow shirts to come through. – Tim Shane

Origin (History)

Probably created in France in the late 16th century by Tristano Martinelli from Mantua, a member of the Raccolti troupe.  He seems to have crossed Zanni with a medieval figure from the French popular tradition, a kind of wild man covered in leaves.  – Rudlin

It is said that the lower town (Bergamo) produced nothing but fools and dullards, whereas the upper town was the home of the nimble-wits.  Therefore Harlequin, having been born to the lower part, was a simpleton from the beginning, while Brighella and other Zanni, his tyrannical crony, was born on the heights and were extremely crafty.  It must be added, however, that Harlequin himself claims the upper and lower town as his birthplace.  – Duchartre

Colored in deep earth tones with warm colored diamond shaped patches, he is always ready to spring into action in a clumsy yet graceful manner.  He is ragged, yet sleek.

A black stocking wound round the lower face and then up and over the head is a vestige of the full Carnival mask, lending credence to the alternative African slave suggestion as to his origin.  Low forehead with wart, small round eyes.  The deriviant Truffaldino has a less rounded mask, and longer, almond-shaped eyes.  Martinelli is thought to have played him without a mask, in blackface with red and white squiggles. – Rudlin

His head was shaved in the same manner as the acient mimes. – Duchartre

His tan mask (deeper than tan) represents the complexion of the inhabitants of those mountains burned fierce by the sun.  – Goldoni

Signature Props
Always carries his batocchio, meaning in Italian ‘ clapper inside the bell,’ but also having an associated meaning which English would come out as ‘bats in the belfry’.  The literal English etymology is ‘bat’ from the French batte, the usual translation, ‘slapstick’.  As a comedic device the batocchio was derived from the Bergamese peasant stick used for driving cattle.  Two thin pieces of wood are kept apart at the handle and slap against each other when a blow is stopped at the moment of impact.  It is stuck through the belt worn low on the hips.  This belt often also has a pouch carrying bits and pieces.  In Antonio Fava’s opinion, the bat is Arlechinno:  he never puts it down, not even when somersaulting.  It is a phallic symbol, but without menance – which is also true of its use as a weapon, usually against Pantalone, though often the tables are turned and its Arlechinno who finds himself on the receiving end. – Rudlin
Continuously lowered position, caused originally by carrying bags or sedan chairs, leads to lordosis (excessive lumbar curvature).  Yet this increased gravitational pull is compensated by an irrepressible upward energy in the torso: Caliban and Ariel united in the same body.  Elbows are bent, arms in a jug-handle position, or hands on hips with thumb in belt. – Rudlin

Always in the air.  – Duchartre



All the Zanni walks, but more balletic in execution.  In addition he has three-time walk with little tiptoe steps.  Begin with the ball of the right coming to meet the heel of the left after which the left slides forward.  The right foot then steps forward into the opposite starting position.  There are thus four stages, although the walk is in three time.  This is not waltz time, but even i.e. one, two, three, not one-two-three. This walk shows alacrity; he also uses it to show off in front of Columbina.  In the extended grand Zanni walk, the arms and legs circle as if in a mysterious cloak (which they often are!). –Rudlin

1.) Feet in 4th Position with head set down and forward off shoulders.  – Jaymes “Toes” Gregory
2.) Constantly in a low position, especially when in the presence of characters of a higher stature. – Rudlin
3.) Hunched over from carrying bags, chairs, etc. as the result of lordosis (excessive lumbar curvature) – Rudlin
4.) Joints loose and floppy, elbows up, knees bent, head cocked, etc.  Almost like in poses of a string puppet. – Tim Shane
5.) The splits, curved over in a reverse “C”, or any other extreme acrobatic position. – Jaymes “Toes” Gregory
6.) Legs bow-legged as much as possible, with crisp isolated movements, such as pivoting the torso forward from the hips. 
Movements When Arlechinno spots someone, the mask moves first; he then hops round and into the gesture of greeting or whatever.  – Rudlin

Crisp and staccato movements, or completely clumsy and sloppy. - Shane

He is quick and physically and slow mentally, in contrast with Pulchinella and Brighella (who can, however, be fast physically when he needs to be).  Gestures extend to the fingertips with each digit having a separate articulation; they should be developed to imbroglio, then clearly resolved.  Arlechinno always describes precisely, both in word and gesture, even, in fact escpecially, when extemporising or fabricating. – Rudlin
Speech Guttural, Bergamese dialect, hoarse from street hawking.  No pauses or silences for the sake of effect – he either speaks (continuously) or doesn’t (silence).  – Rudlin
Animal Cat/Monkey, sometimes a fox. - Rudlin
Relationships In love with Columbina, but his sexual appetite is immediate in terms of any passing woman. (Harpo Marx) – Rudlin
Relationship to 
Occaisonally aware they are there and can make asides during which he gives his full attention to the spectators before returning to complete absorbtion in the action.  – Rudlin


Distinguished from Zanni by having enough intelligence to hatch schemes, although they rarely work out as planned.  But he is basically reactive rather than proactive.  Complications of plot often derive from his mistakes or his refusal to admit shortcomings, illiteracy for example.  He is possibly the world’s worst messenger because something is bound to happen along the way which will be of more interest than delivering the message.  – Rudlin



Harlequin proved himself the prince of numskulls from birth, but his stupidity was intermittently relieved by flashes of shrewd wit.  -  Duchartre

The acting of the Harlequins before the 17th Century was nothing but a continual play of extravagant tricks, violent movements, and outrageous rogueries.  He was at once insolent, mocking, inept, clownish, and emphatically ribald.  I believe that he was extraordinary agile, and he seemed to be constantly in the air; and I might confidently add that he was a proficient tumbler.  – Riccoboni

…he is so absent minded that he searches everywhere for the donkey on which he is mounted, like an old woman who is always hunting for the spectacles perched on her own forehead.  – Duchartre

His character is a mixture of ignorance, naivete, wit, stupidity and grace.  He is both a rake and an overgrown boy with occasional gleams of intelligence, and his mistakes and clumsiness often have wayward charm.  His acting is patterned on the lithe, agile grace of a young cat, and he has a superficial coarseness which makes his performances all the more amusing.  He plays the role of a faithful valet, always patient, credulous, and greedy.  He is enternally amorous, and is constantly in difficulties either on his own or on his master’s account.  He is hurt and confronted in turn as easily as a child, asn his grief is almost as comic as his joy.  – Jean-Francois Marmontel (1723-99)

His character is that of an ignorant valet, fundamentally nna´ve but nevertheless making every effort to be intelligent, even to the extent of seeming malicious.  He is a glutton and a poltroon, but faithful and energetic.  Through motives of fear or cupidity he is always ready to undertake any sort of rascality and deciet.  He is a chameleon which takes on every color.  He must excel in impromptu, and the first thing that the public always asks of a new Harlequin is that he be agile, and that he jump well, dance and turn somersaults.  -  Duchartre (Calendrier historique des theatres (1751)

Never pathetic, always knows:  he is never the loser.  Never just does something.  For example, if, in the heat of the moment, his slapstick gets left on the ground, he somersaults to pick it up again.  His paradox is that of having a dull mind in an agile body.  Since, however, his body does not recognize the inadequacy of the mind which drives it, he is never short of a solution:  the fact that he cannot read, for example, does not hinder him from divuldging the contents of a letter.  As developed into the French, Arlequin in the mid-17th Century by Domenico Biancolelli (Dominique), he became more quick-witted.  But even then he could only entertain one idea at a time, and never contemplated the consequences of an action or learned from the experience of it.  He responds to everything – hunger, love, danger – in a way that is taken to apocalyptic proportions and then forgotten entirely – until the next time.  A very Latin temperment… but never malicious.  He is very likely to become disguised later in the action, for example as a priest in order to conduct a mock wedding, or as a Turk, a pilgrim, a rich benefactor, or a cross-dressed in order to fulfill a rendevous.  – Rudlin



1.) Finds some way to lose an appendage, usually his hand which goes flying out towards the audience.
2.) Likes to stick his head through people’s legs, arms or over their shoulder.  Often uses other characters as a shield whenever possible.
3.) Loses control and flails around wildly like an octopus on ice.
4.) Somersault whenever picking something up or moving to a lower level or from one side of the stage to the other. 
5.) Likes to scream whenever injured or upset and continue the incredible and unbelievable rant until either silenced or knocked unconsicous.
6.) Slides across stage area whenever possible in making entrances or exits.
7.) Likes to add his own thoughts or opinions to messages or orders.
8.) Misuses props, or uses them not for their intended purposes as much as possible.

A Bibliography

Commedia dell'Arte: An Actor's Handbook by John Rudlin.  Routledge 1994

Commedia dell'arte: A Scene-Study Book by Bari Rolfe.  Personabooks 1977

The Italian Comedy by Pierre Louis Ducharte.  Dover Publications, inc.  1966

Lazzi: The Comic Routines of the Commedia dell'Arte by Mel Gordon.  Performing Arts Journal Publications  1983

Scenarios of the Commedia dell'Arte:  Flaminio Scala's Il Teatro Delle Favole Rappresentative translated by Henry F. Salerno Limelight Editions  1996

All other comments have come from growth and experience of the performers of Commedia dell'Carte

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