The Commedia dell' Arte, or The Italian Comedy, as it is sometimes called, flourished all over Italy, and later in France, as a popular form of theatre in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Its roots are in Greek and Roman comedy, but when it emerged in Tuscany in about 1550, it quickly developed a style all its own. It is important because it influenced all forms of popular entertainment in the centuries that followed, right up to the present day: melodrama, ballet, opera, films, pantomime - all owe a great deal to the characters, plots, and comic business of the Commedia dell' Arte.
Some of the companies performed in the great houses of the time, but for the most part, the itinerant players wandered from town to town, setting up their trestle stages in the market square, where they would perform in competition with all the vendors shouting their wares. This obviously gave rise to a very broad, over-the-top style of acting, but it is apparent that the commedia appealed to the whole populace, from the highest to the lowest, with something for everyone in its wit, and physical skill - the stock characters becoming involved in arguments, confusions, misunderstandings and romantic passions. When they arrived at a new site, the stage manager would pin up the scenario, and the actors would improvise the performance in a combination of language and action, (often incorporating satirical comment on local events) and whenever they felt the action was sagging a bit, they would draw on their repertoire of set speeches and set business (lazzi) to lift it and get it going again.
The characters of the commedia fall into three classes: servants (zanni), older men, (vecchi) and young lovers. Sometimes there was an older woman, a widow with money, or a nurse, perhaps, but it is interesting to note that although the comic male characters wore half masks (leaving the mouth free for speech) the women and young lovers, both male and female, did not.
Among the servant class, the most well known and perhaps the best loved is Arlecchino, from Bergamo. (Much later, when the Commedia moved into France and the rest of Europe, this character became known as Harlequin.) Originally a wily, impoverished rogue, Arlecchino is ruled by three main passions - food, sex and money, often torn between the three. Always hungry, always chasing after the pert serving girl Arlecchina, who teases him unmercifully, and always trying to get his wages from his skinflint of a master, Arlecchino indulges in a great range of comic tricks, often falling prey to the tricks of others. He can crow like a cock when he wins, and cry like a child when he doesn't. His ragged tunic and baggy trousers, covered in patches, later became the neat, tight-fitting suit with its colourful lozenges of the pantomime character Harlequin.
There are many other characters in the servant class, some variations of Arlecchino himself, but perhaps the most notable, for sheer contrast, is Brighella, a rough and brutal character, who often appears as an innkeeper, or merchant, as well as companion to Arlecchino, but whereas the latter is a mixture of ignorance and wit, with a childlike simplicity and complete lack of morality, Brighella is cynical and knowing, with a tendency to be completely evil and violent.
In the second class, that of the older men, the most prominent is Pantalone, a Venetian, who can appear as a rich merchant with a keen intelligence in business affairs, or sometimes he will be a lascivious old miser. Although he can feign sickness and frailty when it suits him, and he can appear foolish when he pretends to a youthfulness he has long since lost - Pantelone is basically a dignified, eminent figure -usually the father of a beautiful daughter, or the husband of a young wife, who becomes involved in emotional situations with which he cannot always cope.
Companion to Pantelone is The Dottore, from Bologna, who wanders in and out talking incessantly. A loquacious charlatan, he may appear as a doctor of law, medicine or philosophy, but considers himself to be an authority on all three. His mind stored with classical mythology, latin tags and legal phrases, it is impossible for him to think or speak in a logical manner.
Finally there is the boastful Capitano, who proclaims himself to be the hero of many battles and exploits in love, but is often revealed to be a complete coward. Sometimes the Captain can appear as the son of Pantelone, or Graziano the Doctor, but more often he enters alone, and ends up being derided, cheated, laughed at and ridiculted by the ladies and servants alike.
These older men are often engaged in arguments about outstanding debts, or negotiating the marriages of their various sons and daughters, but the young people themselves pursue their own lovelorn inclinations, usually at variance with their parents wishes.
The Commedia dell'Arte is sometimes depicted as raucus, even crude entertainment, but this is not the true picture. There may have been inferior companies who indulged the lowest common denominator - but the main style was one of skilful comedy - frank and audacious, yes, but not crude - the actors were highly trained, educated people, and the energetic language and action always offset by the lyricism and poetry of the romance.
It will be apparent from the above descriptions that one of the most immediate beneficiaries of this great blossoming of The Commedia dell'arte was Shakespeare himself, who used many of the elements to create his own comedies. There is no evidence that he ever saw a Commedia company perform, but there are such strong links and comparisons, he must have heard some very accurate accounts of it. The interweaving of the different stories in A Midsummer Night's Dream is a case in point, where we have the upper classes, or aristocracy, the young lovers and the rude mechanicals, as well as the fairy world, all linked together to form a perfectly balanced whole. The characters, too, are recognizeable. The teasing of Malvolio in 'Twelfth Night' is very reminiscent of Arlecchino and his cronies: We see Pantalone re-emerge as Polonius in Hamlet, or more strikingly, as Shylock, a moneylender in The Merchant of Venice , and perhaps there are shades of Brighella in Iago, who wields such an evil influence on Othello.
When the Italian writer and impresario Goldoni began to script the improvised plots of the Commedia, and the grotesque masks were dropped, something of the earthy vitality was lost, but we also gained a more elegant and everlasting written comedy in such works as 'A Servant of Two Masters' which is very popular, and often performed, even today.