Saturday, April 9, 2011

H is for ... Harlequin

In 19th century Britain, a popular form of entertainment came to the theater: the Harlequinade. Originally an Italian dramatic form - the Commedia dell'Arte - the British Harlequinade was a slapstick comedy, revolving around the romantic misadventures of the hero, Harlequin, and his lady love, Columbina. Clown and Pantaloon sought to thwart them, and Pierrot assisted them. The term 'slapstick' derives from the baton, or batte, carried by Harlequin, which he used to effect magical transformations - thus, Harlequin is the progenitor of the Three Stooges, the Krazy Gang, and the other slapstick comedians of early cinematic era.

He is, further, the descendant of a long line of Harlequin characters. Sometimes known by other names - as Bagatino, the juggler; Guazetto, the dancer; Truffaldino, the improvisational comic; Trivelino, the fool - Harlequin dates back probably as far as the 15th century. He is an example of the Zanni, a comic trickster archetype and stock character of Italian, and later French and English, theater. Intriguing associations of the mischievous Harlequin are the devil Alichino featured in Dante's Inferno, and the Hellequin of Old French folklore - himself associated, in his aspect of leader of the Wild Hunt, with the Norse god Odin. It is also possible that Arlecchino, as the character was known in the Italian Commedia, is related to the Greek demigod Hercules. Thus, he has a rich lineage, and in his long time on the stage Harlequin has played a terrific range of roles. In almost all of his iterations, however, Harlequin is a mysterious, mischievous, acrobatic, sly, and magical being - a comic servant, generally, but both his comedy and his servitude are veneers covering an altogether darker and more powerful reality.

Traditionally, Harlequin wears a black or black-and-red mask - at various times, this has evolved from a simple domino to a full-face grotesque - with a motley costume patterned in bright diamonds, sometimes with a ruffed collar. Unlike other Zanni characters, Harlequin does not employ whiteface. He is often characterized by over-elaborate acrobatics and eye-catching complexities of dramatic presentation. And he is, for several of the reasons to which I have alluded above, and others yet to be revealed, a personal hero of mine. Since adopting the "Mojo" avatar around the turn of the Millennium, variations of the jester's mask have been my preferred representation online. "Mojo" isn't Harlequin, any more - or less - than he's me, but I suspect Harlequin has been at least as great an influence on "Mojo" as I have.


Erin Kane Spock said...

I participate in Renaissance faires and a good friend is a member of a commedia troupe there. They have a lot of fun.
I know the commedia costuming was the basis for the jester's motley in the English courts. I read that some took their professions so seriously that they would actually tattoo the pattern on on their skin.

Heather Henry said...

I have always enjoyed the Harlequinns and Jesters. My husband is a jester. He juggles and has a costume that he used to wear when we'd visit Ren Faires or entertaining groups. He doesn't do it much anymore, lack of time, but it is one of the things that I love about him.
Read a great book (fictional) called Mimus about jesters. It's a YA book, I read it with my son, very interesting and entertaining.

Deirdra Eden-Coppel said...

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Go to and pick up your award.

N. R. Williams said...

And now of course, Harlequin is known as a romance publisher. What a strange turn of events.
N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium.