In the 16th century, Commedia Dell’Arte may have had over 100 characters, however over the years the list has been refined to only a handful of stock characters. We have listed below some of the most common stock characters. The artwork shown below is by artist Maurice Sand and we believe they are good representations of the characters seen towards the end of the Commedia period in history.
Servant masks such as Arlecchino were often the main attraction of the troupe. Fun loving, mischievous, constantly moving animal-like beings, with an attention span of about 30 seconds. The servants or Zannis, as a group of characters, are not malicious. They are poor, crude folk from the hills curious to the ways of the world and inevitably they create havoc. Arlecchino is commonly seen in clothes with diamond shaped cutouts (harlequin).
Pulcinella has been best described as the “runt of the litter”.
Ugly and hunchbacked, he is a scrappy servant who is also a complete egotist. He can be played stupid pretending to be clever, or clever pretending to be stupid.
This valet is big, crafty, bold and unscrupulous, a cynical liar who looks out only for himself. An animal of prey is his appropriate identification. Brighella has flair; he steals but is not an ordinary snatch-grab, for he will execute theft ingeniously. He never has any of the money that he diddles out of others since he drinks it up, then sleeps it off.
The ‘Stammerer’. He is the old friend to Pantelone. He is a Zanni and can be a servant or a small tradesman.
Is a Zanni who has collected money; a self-made man. He is afraid of death, losing his money and his sexual desire. He refuses to die because he cannot take his money with him. Historically the comics decided to make him a Venetian because the business centre of the world was Venice.
il Doctore (the Doctor)
Is said to be from Bologna, the city famous for gastronomy and the University.
He claims to be an expert but he is not. He hopes the audience is ignorant, so no one will know that he doesn’t know what he is talking about. The nose is wide and the brow is heavy to make the eyes look close together and assist the actor in creating a look of doubt.
il Capitaino (the Captain)
Is a soldier without a particular rank, the image of a brave hero.
Said to be Spanish, he is a poor man who wants to be rich and famous, but when there is real danger he runs like a coward. This mask is usually grotesque, comic, obscene and has a fixed function of always complicating the story.
The Zanni characters did not always have names, but their role was to bring confusion and comedy to the situation.
They often were seen to engage with the audience and have discussions with the hecklers.
Zanni costumes often included clothing that we might associate with a court jester. Arlecchino and Pantalone are both Zannis.
Colombina is usually cast as a mischievous maid, a comic but not always virtuous figure with a best friend (and sometimes lover) of Arlecchino. Originally she was matched to Arlecchino’s status and intellect.
Later in history she was cast as a leading young female who needed to thwart the amorous advances of the lecherous old man Pantalone.
Other main characters within a lazzi would include The Lovers. These characters did not wear masks, and some of the regulars include:
Character description sources: Commedia dell’ Arte by John Rudlin & A Scene Study Book by Bari Rolfe