Harlequin (or Arlecchino in Italian, Arlequin in French, and Arlequín in Spanish) is the most popularly known of the zanni or comic servant characters from the Italian Commedia dell'arte. It was introduced by the successful Italian actor Tristano Martinelli in the 1580s, and it became a stock character after Tristano's death in 1630. The derived genre of the Harlequinade, where the Harlequin character takes center stage, came to England in the 18th century (John Rich).
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.
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). 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.
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 name also appears as that of a devil, as Alichino, in Dante's Inferno (cantos 21 to 23).
The re-interpretation of the "devil" stock character as a zanni character of the commedia dell'arte 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. 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. Tristano's Harlequin also had a black leather half-mask, a moustache and a pointed beard. The name Harlequin (Arlequin) was Tristano'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). Tristano'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 other by Nicolò Zecca, active c. 1630 in Bologna as well as Turin and Mantua.
Further transformations of the character occurred in France, where Arlecchino was performed at the Comédie-Italienne in Italian by Tristano Martinelli, Giovan Battista Andreini, and Angelo Costantini (c. 1654–1729). The role was played in French as Arlequin in the 1660s by (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." The Italians were expelled from France in 1697 for satirizing King Louis XIV's second wife, Madame de Maintenon, but returned in 1716 (after his death), when Tommaso Antonio Vicentini ("Thomassin", 1682–1739) became famous in the part. The rhombus shape of the patches arose by adaptation to the Paris fashion of the 17th century by Biancolelli.
Characteristics and dramatic function
The primary aspect of Arlecchino was his physical agility. 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.
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.