the harlequin history




the harlequin lives in modern pantomime, a posturing and acrobatic character who gives his name to the 'harlequinade', attired in mask and parti-coloured spangled tights


a charismatic, mysterious and powerful figure provided with a sword like a bat, by which, himself invisible, he works wonders





the harlequin character may have been based on or influenced by the zanni archetype who was acrobatic and nimble



character and 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.

Some of the most famous actors were Tomaso Visentini ("Thomassin"), who performed with the Comédie-Italienne in 18th century France, and Tristano Martinelli. 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a love interest in the person of Columbina, or in older plays any of the Soubrette roles, and his lust for her was only superseded by his desire for food and fear of his master.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 inamorata, 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.



the trivelino costume was almost identical to the harlequin's, but had a variation of the 17th century where the triangular patches were replaced with moons, stars, circles and triangles


the harlequinade

Harlequin is the comedian and romantic male lead. He is a servant and the love interest of Columbine. His everlasting high spirits and cleverness work to save him from several difficult situations into which his amoral behaviour leads during the course of the Harlequinade.

In some versions of the original Commedia dell'arte, Harlequin is able to perform magic feats. He never holds a grudge or seeks revenge. John Rich brought the British pantomime and Harlequinade to great popularity in the early 18th century and became the most famous early Harlequin in England.

He developed the character of Harlequin into a mischievous magician. He used his magic batte or "slapstick" to transform the scene from the pantomime into the Harlequinade and to magically change the settings to various locations during the chase scene.

A century later, Fred Payne and Harry Payne, known as the Payne Brothers, were the most famous Harlequin and Clown, respectively, of their day.


It has generally been assumed that Harlequin was transferred to France from the 'Arlecchino' of Italian medieval and Renaissance popular comedy; but Dr Driesen in his Ursprung des Harlekins (Berlin, 1904) shows that this is incorrect. An old French 'Harlekin' (Herlekin, Hellequin and other variants) is found in folk-literature as early as 1100; he had already become proverbial as a ragamuffin of a demonic appearance and character. In 1262 harlekins appear in a play by Adam de la Halle as intermediaries of King Hellekin, prince of Fairyland, in courting Morgan le Fay. It was not until later that the French Harlekin was transformed into the Italian Arlecchino. In French form the harlequin was a spirit of the air, thus deriving his characteristic invisibility. Subsequently the harlequin was imported into light comedy; and his various attributes were gradually amalgamated in his pantomime form.


the harlequin evolution

Harlequin is the most popularly known of the zanni or comic servant characters from the Italian Commedia dell'arte and its descendant, the Harlequinade.

One of the origins postulated for the modern Harlequin is Hellequin, a stock character in French passion plays. Hellequin, a black-faced emissary of the devil, is said to have roamed 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 mask (red and black) Hellequin is the leader of la Mesnée d'Hellequin, thought to be related to the Old English Herla, a character often identified with Woden.

Although illustrations of Arlecchino have only been dated as far back as 1572, the character had existed before this date. The origins of the name are uncertain: some say it comes from Dante's Inferno, XXI, XXII and XXIII; one of the devils in Hell having the name Alichino.

Interpreted thus, Harlequin's distinctive motley costume may be a stylized variant of Zanni's plain white garb, designed to reflect the ad-hoc patching necessary to prevent the garment's degradation.




the harlequin eventually became something of a romantic hero around the 18th century, when his popularity provoked the harlequinade


variations of the harlequin

Trivelino, or trivelin - the name is said to mean 'tatterdemalion', one of the oldest versions of Harlequin, dating to the 15th century. 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 there 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 15th century. Bagatino. A juggler.



the harlequin is mischievous but never holds a grudge or seeks revenge... using his batte this acrobatic figure is able to perform magic feats

har·le·quin [hahr-luh-kwin, -kin] noun (often initial capital letter) a comic character in commedia dell'arte and the harlequinade, usually masked, dressed in multicolored, diamond-patterned tights, and carrying a wooden sword or magic wand



the red and the black will play.mp3

© The Harlequin Game Limited 2012