Harlequin and commedia dell’arte

Harlequin is one of those intriguing words that we come across commonly but its origins are not quite as familiar. English has adopted the word harlequin to mean a distinctive multi-coloured pattern. And we also know that Harlequin is a theatre character. But how does it fit together and what is the origin of the name? Thanks to the Online Etymological Dictionary for inspiring this post.

Commedia dell’arte

The commedia dell’arte was a form of masked street theatre popular in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was a form of colourful, improvisational theatre that featured a set of stock characters, each with distinct traits and costumes, that engage in humorous and farcical scenarios.

One of the stock characters, Harlequin, or in Italian, Arlecchino (Arlechin, Arlechì, etc.) was prominent. “Harlequin” was first mentioned in the 1580s. There are other famous characters from the genre that you might have heard of:

  • Pantalone is an elderly, wealthy Venetian merchant, portrayed as greedy and miserly. He wears red pants, a long coat, and a large, feathered hat.
  • Pulcinella (Punch in English) is a silly, hunchbacked character known for his slapstick humour. He wears white clothing with large buttons and a conical hat.
  • Columbina is a clever and flirtatious maidservant often assists other characters and is a skilled manipulator of situations. She dresses simply and often wears a distinctive headscarf.
  • Isabella is a young and attractive woman often portrayed as a romantic heroine pursued by various male characters. Her costume is elegant and stylish.
  • Dottore (Il Dottore della Grazia) is a pompous and verbose lawyer or doctor. His dialogue is filled with convoluted and nonsensical Latin phrases. He wears academic robes and a large, black academic cap.
  • Brighella is a crafty and sly servant known for his wit, resourcefulness, and ability to manipulate situations to his advantage. His costume typically includes a green mask and a rustic outfit.
  • Capitano is a boastful and cowardly military officer who exaggerates his accomplishments (somewhat like Falstaff). He wears a flashy uniform, a large feathered hat, and a cape.

The harlequin character

This Harlequin character is thought to be derived from an older stock character Truffa (Trúffa in Italian means “a cheating a pilfering”). The character was a ruffiano (pimp or whoremonger) but also shown as a servant.

The earliest depictions of Harlequin depict him as a bumbling servant. Although a theory of the name origin proposes it to be from Old French, la maisnie Hellequin, meaning the household of Hellequin, a troop of demons who rode the night air on horses. The English form of the name is Hurlewain. The reference is probably more a reference to the energetic chaos of the actors in commedia dell’arte than a description of the character’s intent.

The harlequin costume

Harlequin’s costume is very distinctive with a colourful diamond pattern of primary colours. The pattern represented a tattered, heavily patched garment representing the characters low status. From his gaudy dress comes the English adjective meaning multi-coloured.

Word origin

The Online Etymological Dictionary references Florio’s 1611 Italian-English dictionary which doesn’t contain the word Arlecchino but it does contain arlásso, meaning a “cheating trick” and arlótta “a proud, filthie, common whore”. The male counterpart arlótto is a lack-latin, an uneducated person, or a hedge-priest, an ignorant itinerant priest (and also, according to a much later dictionary, a glutton). The word is equivalent to the English word harlot. Note that the original English meaning of harlot was male, implying a “vagabond, man of no fixed occupation, idle rogue” and in the Middle English period was applied to jesters and buffoons.

Current use

Being involved with Sydney rugby I have come up against the Waterloo Harlequins, a club that has a lot of British ex-pats playing for it. The “Qunis” borrow their name from the English Premiership team based in Twickenham, London, several of their players are in the England squad.

For Batman fans you might recognise Harlequin in the Harley Quinn character as a henchwoman for the supervillain Joker.

If you live in Eastern Australia you might have come across the Cotton Harlequin Bug or Hibiscus Harlequin Bug, Tectocoris diophthalmus. It is a highly coloured plant sucking insect. Like most highly coloured animals the bright colours have evolved to warn predators (birds in this case) that they are distasteful thus discouraging the predator from eating them.

You have to love the word harlequin for all the mischief tied up in its meaning.