Who are the stock characters in Commedia dell' Arte?

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Answered by: Michelle, An Expert in the Theater - General Category
The Commedia dell' Arte employs basic stock characters, fictional people who are amusing, predictable, and two-dimensional. It was not uncommon for an actor in a Commedia dell’Arte troupe to play the same stock character for most of his or her career. Certain traditional Italian Commedia dell' Arte characters specifically hail from a particular region in Italy, which would take on a different meaning depending on where they were performing.

     Vecchi—Master characters, noblemen

     Pantalone—The master. He is a senile, wealthy Venetian merchant who is always being cuckolded. In many storylines, he attempts to control his daughter and protect his money from thieving servants, but of course he is thwarted. He is dressed almost always in red with a large, red-nosed mask. In The Miser, Harpagon is undoubtedly modeled after the Pantalone character.

     Il Dottore—The Doctor, Pantalone’s middle-aged neighbor from Bologna. He’s pompous and claims to be educated, although he doesn’t really know anything, and speaks in a comical fake Latin. In Commedia performances, he is either Pantalone’s devoted friend or bitter enemy, and he is always jealous of Pantalone’s success. Sometimes he is the father of one of the lovers. He is often costumed in black, with a black mask and white doctor’s collar.

     Il Capitano—The Captain, an arrogant Spaniard. He is a bombastic braggart who intimidates the townspeople with his warrior bravado, but he is usually less brave than he’d like everyone to think. During the 1500s, Il Capitan most likely represented all of Spain during Italy’s confrontation with the Spanish; he was often the butt of the jokes and the target of the lazzi. He is always colorful and elaborately overdressed, sometimes with goofy-looking feathers in his hat.

     Inamorati—The young lovers. They are usually the daughters and sons of the vecchi, and thus enjoy a high status in society. They almost always have the play’s dilemma—do they follow their hearts or obey the wishes of their parents? They more serious than the other characters, and are the only ones who do not wear masks.

     Zanni—Servant characters

     Arlecchino—By far, the most popular (and famous) character to come out of Commedia dell’ Arte. Literally, “Harlequin,” he is Pantalone’s witty prankster of a servant. He uses agility and acrobatics to get out of sticky situations; failing that, he always carries around a slapstick with which to hit people. He wears a multicolored, triangular-patterned outfit and a black mask with a blunt nose.

     Columbina (also “Columbine”)—The only female servant character, Columbina is a cunning little soubrette, often employed by the Inamorati to help them convince their feuding parents to let them marry. Although she is impudent, she is also very charming, and one of the few genuinely intelligent characters onstage. She is Arlecchino’s female opposite, and they are often romantically involved. Columbina usually wears slightly ragged clothes (to show that she is a servant).

     Brighella—A coarse, scheming, low-level merchant. He is thieving, mean-spirited, and occasionally violent, especially to characters who are lower in station than he is (and, like Arlecchino he is often equipped with a slapstick). His outfits are white with green trim and he wears a green mask.

     Pulcinella—The source of the English “Punch and Judy” characters, Pulcinella is a hunchbacked, potbellied servant who beats his wife. His costume is generally all white, and his mask is black with an exaggeratedly long, beaky nose.

     Gros-Guillaume—Literally translating from the French to “Fat William,” this character has a flour-whitened face and comically obese body (much like a human Pillsbury Dough Boy, to be honest). He is unique to French Commedia dell' Arte.

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