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Commedia Del’Arte Essay

Columbina is the perky maid of the ‘Old Man’, Pantalone. She is better dressed than the male servants as she is also a lady’s maid. She usually wears a knee length dress and an apron. The colouring of her clothes can be different in different acts, depending on her relationships with the characters and the scenario. She can be in a similar scheme to Arlecchino (where she is sometimes known as Arlecchina with similar diamonds and triangles), or if she is assigned to a rival family of Arlecchino’s, she can be in that scheme. In cases where she is an independent character, she can be in blacks and whites in the spirit of a French Maid.

Columbina does not usually wear a mask but sometimes wears one covering only her eyes. Her signature props are a tambourine and a basket. Her physical appearance is attractive, perky and petite with a tiny waist, wide hips and lots of cleavage.

She walks as if she is skipping on air with a little flick of the foot at the end of each step. All her posses are usually seductive and accentuate her cleavage. Her movement continues during speaking, shifting balance from one foot to the other and moving her head sharply as if searching for someone other than the person being addressed. She’s fast and nimble in order to escape unwanted attentions or to butt in, and can escape from a situation. She is happy and carefree, yet when assigned a task moves with speed and efficiency. This is one of her strongest traits in being a good servant. Her speech is sharp and gossipy with frequent variations of pitch.

She Loves Arlecchino, but sees through him. She therefore scolds him, punishes him, deserts him, takes him back, but in the end he does not change and she has to accept him for what he is, which is still more lovable than Il Dottore, Pantalone and Il Capitano. She can be very affectionate to other characters as well, and her affections seem to flow through her physically, but she always holds something back. As a result she is pestered by other men, especially Il Capitano and Pantalone. She is always ready to help the Lovers, perhaps through natural sympathy with their plight.

She is a spectator herself. She has a very strong relationship with the audience, almost confidential in the sense that she too can see what fools the rest of them are. She also often flirts with the spectators.

She appears almost if not before her name is called, always being on step ahead of her master and finishes sentences for her master too, which she sometimes uses in her favour. When a situation gets out of control, she becomes the dominant voice to put everyone and everything back in its place. She even beats the male characters in strength and intelligence, sometimes even her master.


Isabella is the daughter of Pantalone, the old man. Because of her fathers status she had the newest fashion, and usually showed off her wardrobe, wigs and shoes often. She wore stunning silk dresses, often in antique Renaissance style with necklaces of gold and pearls.

She is young and attractive and modest but at times can be selfish. Isabella did not usually wear a mask but did sometimes wear a small mask that covered only her eyes.

Her signature props are a handkerchief, book and a fan. She has a lack of firm contact with the earth. Her chest and heart appear heavy. They are full of breath, but then take little pants on top. Her posture is correct and tall and is always very proud. Her walk is small as her steps are little.

Isabella’s posses are of an innocent and happy nature; leaning to one side with one leg pointed outwards, and hands in praying position touching cheek as if sleeping. Another is the back of her hand on her forehead, tilted back as if in agony as well as her chin resting on hands laying on top of each other or fingers interlocked and the head slightly tilted.

Her movements are exaggerated, especially her hands and arms, which are like feathers flapping in the wind. She often manipulates her hankie and frequently looks in a hand mirror. Any imperfection can spell disaster. Her speech is refined, however lacking pretentiousness and is never lost for the correct phrase.

The lovers are in love with themselves being in love. They love each other, but are more preoccupied with being seen as lovers. They often feign mild hatred. She is extremely aware of being watched and plays with the audience for sympathy in their plight and ccasionally flirts with spectators.

She is flirtatious, headstrong, has dramatic intensity and feigned madness due to passionate love and can be prudish. She can be hot and cold. i.e. prone to mood swings and is a tease with an independent will.

She is vain, petulant, spoilt, full of doubt and have very little patience. She has a masochistic enjoyment of enforced separation because it enables her to dramatize their situation, lament, moan, send messages, etc. When her and Lelio do meet they are almost always tongue-tied and need interpreters who proceed to misinterpret their statements, either through stupidity (Zanni), malicious desire for revenge (Brighella) or calculated self-interest (Columbina). Isabella’s attention span is short like a young child’s and her fear that she might be a nobody keeps her hyper-animated.


Arlecchino has an enduring magical power, a testimony perhaps to the mystery of it origin. He is a servant and jester, usually to Pantalone, but also frequently Il’Capitano, or Il’ Dottore. He wears a tight-fitting long jacket and trousers, sewn over with random, odd-shapen patches of green, yellow, red and brown – possibly remnants of leaves… The jacket is laced down the front with a thong and caught by a black belt worn very low on the hips. The shoes are flat and black. He wears a beret, or later a malleable felt hat with a narrow brim, with a feather or tail of a fox, apparently this was a sign of the wearer being a butt of ridicule.

Coloured in deep earth tones with warm coloured diamond shaped patches, Arlecchino is always ready to spring into action in a clumsy yet graceful manner. He is ragged, yet sleek. His wears a mask that gives him a low forehead with a wart and has small round eyes.

Arlecchino’s signature props included his batocchio, meaning in Italian ‘ clapper inside the bell,’ which he always carries.

He is continuously in a lowered position, with his hands on his hips with his thumbs in his belt. He walks in sly and comical way by taking a couple steps followed by a quick tip toe. This walk shows alacrity; he also uses it to show off in front of Columbina. His joints are often loose and floppy. When Arlecchino spots someone, the mask moves first; he then hops round and into the gesture of greeting.

He is physically quick and slow mentally, in contrast with Brighella (who can, however, be fast physically when he needs to be). His gestures extend to the fingertips with each digit having a separate articulation. His speech is guttural and hoarse from street hawking and the are no pauses or silences for the sake of effect – he either speaks continuously or doesn’t speak at all.

Arlecchino is in love with Columbina, but his sexual appetite is immediate in terms of any passing woman. He is occasionally aware the audience is there and can make asides during which he gives his full attention to the spectators before returning to complete absorption in the action. His character is a mixture of ignorance, naivete, wit, stupidity and grace. He is both a rake and an overgrown boy with occasional gleams of intelligence, and his mistakes and clumsiness often have wayward charm. His acting is patterned on the lithe, agile grace of a young cat, and he has a superficial coarseness which makes his performances all the more amusing. He plays the role of a faithful valet, always patient, credulous, and greedy. He is enternally amorous, and is constantly in difficulties either on his own or on his master’s account. He is hurt and confronted in turn as easily as a child, and his grief is almost as comic as his joy.


Lelio is one of the lovers (Isabella’s partner) and is usually the son of Il Dottore or has no relations. He is high in stature, but is usually brought low by the hopelessness of his infatuation.

He wears the latest fashion, which at that time was to be dresses as a young soldier or cadet. Sometimes he dressed in an over fashionable colour scheme that was very feminine with a great deal of flair.

Lelio is young, attractive, modest, courteous and gallant. He occasionally wears a mask that covers only his eyes but often went unmasked. His signature prop is a handkerchief.

His feet have a lack of firm contact with the earth, making his stance and walk air like. His chest and heart appear heavy and full of breath. His legs are usually tightly together, with only one foot firmly planted on the ground, and the other crawling upward like he has to go to the loo. He does not walk as much as tweeter, due to the instability of his base. First the head leans the other way to the body sway. Then the arms have to be used, one above the other, as a counterweight like and off balance tip toe.

His pose can be anything that might look Vogue and whenever he is sitting, his legs are crossed in a feminine matter.

Lelio’s movements are well-to-do but ridiculously exaggerated. His movement comes at the point of overbalance, leading to a sideways rush towards a new focus, with his arms left trailing behind. When stopping at the new point (usually the beloved or some token thereof) before almost touching it. The Lovers (he and Isabella) have little or no physical contact. When there is any, the minimum has maximum effect.

Lelio is often holding a handkerchief or flower, etc. in his leading hand. His arms never make identical shapes and because of his vanity, he frequently looks in a hand mirror, only to become upset by any minor imperfection that is discovered. He is always looking to see if a ribbon or sequin is out of place. A button found on the floor or a blemish in the coiffure equals disaster.

His speech makes great display of courtly words and baroque metaphors, also knowing large extracts of poems by heart. He speaks softly in musical sentences which are often flamboyant, hyperbolical and full of amorous rhetoric.

When it comes to women, his words are the only thing that shows that he might have any interest. His body language, actions, tone, all contradict any infatuation he may have with a female. The only reason why he would express an interest in a female is because he loves the idea of love. However he seems genuinely more in love with himself and other male characters before he is in love with a woman.

He relate exclusively to himself – he is in love with himself being in love. The last person he actually relates to in the course of the action is often Isabella. When he and she do meet they have great difficulty in communicating with each other (usually because of the nerves). And they relate to their servants only in terms of pleading for help. The Lovers love each other, yet are more preoccupied with being seen as lovers, undergoing

all the hardships of being in such a plight, than with actual fulfilment. Consequently they frequently scorn each other and feign mild hatred; they rebut, despair, reconcile, but eventually end up marrying in the way of true love when the game is up and they know they cannot play any more.

Lelio is extremely aware of being watched. He plays with the audience for sympathy in their plight and occasionally flirts with spectators.

Lelio is indispensable. Without him and his inability to resolve problems with Isabella, there would be no struggle between the ineffectuality of youth and the implacability of age. The lovers are never alone on stage – they always have someone with them or spying on them.

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