Comedy of the Artists

Since one of the DVD versions of The Taming of the Shrew that I’ll be reviewing as part of this week’s podcast takes much of its visual style from commedia dell’arte, I figure now is as good a time as any to do a little regurgitation of dramatic data:

Commedia dell’arte, which translates from Italian to the English “comedy of the artists,” is a type of improvisational theater of Italy from the 16th century.  Since it was improvisational, it was usually unscripted but it had stock plotlines and characters.  According to the English critic Barretti, these stock characters “originally intended as a kind of characteristical (sic) representative of some particular Italian district or town.”  Thus, these characters (each recognizable by costume and/or mask) represent the different social strata (servants, old men of the town, the young lovers):

  • Zanni (servants)
    • Arecchino (Harlequin)
      acrobatic; slow of mind, but quick of body
    • Brighella
      sometimes a servant (though sometimes a tavern owner), he is a comic liar
    • Pedrolino
      kind, naive servant who is easily taken advantage of
    • Colombina
      comic female servant (for some plots, she’s the only bright mind in the bunch)
    • Sandrone
      crude but clever peasant
  • Vecchi (old men of town)
    • Pantalone (Pantaloon)
      cheap, horny old man
    • Il Dottore
      old doctor who is an obstacle to the young lovers
    • Il Capitano
      blowhard coward who tries to impress the locals (sometimes portrayed as a foreigner)
    • Scaramuccia (Scaramouche)
      roguish clown, boastful but cowardly (think: a smaller version of Il Capitano)
    • La Signora
      wife to Pantalone (and sometimes a mistress to Pedrolino), she’s an older, more calculating, and sexually active version of Columbina
    • Pulcinella (Punch)
      mean, vicious, and crafty, he pretends to be stupid to gain control
    • Tartaglia
      comic old man of the city, glasses and stutters
  • Innamorati (young lovers)
    • passionate but not always bright

[NOTE: Up until the 17th century: Pulcinella and Tartaglia were not performed]

As noted above, commedia dell’arte is usually unscripted but it had stock plots: young lovers fall in love… one or more vecchi stand in way… the lovers need help from zanni to make it happen… much wackiness ensues… leading to resolution and a happy ending: marriage and forgiveness.

As for Taming, the only explicit link to commedia is Gremio, who is introduced in the stage directions in Act One, Scene One as “a pantaloon” (I.i.47 ff s.d.), and later Lucentio uses his Latin lesson to reveal to Bianca both his identity and his plan to “beguile the old pantaloon” (III.i.36).  Bianca and Lucentio are obvious (though unreferenced) analogs for the Innamorati.

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