Masks in Performing Arts | Commedia dell'Arte

by Second Nature on September 28, 2023

Commedia dell'Arte, originating in Italy in the 16th century, is a form of theatre characterized by masked “types” which represents stock characters of the day. It is regarded as the first form of professional theatre and a significant influence on European dramatic arts. Its performances were largely improvisational, relying on scenarios that outlined plot points, around which the actors would improvise their dialogue. This genre of theatre was both comedic and energetic, often involving slapstick and humor.

Stock Characters and Masks

The stock characters in Commedia dell'Arte are its most distinct element, and most characters are recognized by their traditional costumes and masks. Here are some notable characters:

  • Arlecchino (Harlequin): A mischievous and acrobatic servant, recognizable by his colorful checkered costume.  

  • Pantalone: A greedy old man, often portrayed as wealthy and foolish.

  • Il Dottore (The Doctor): A pedantic and verbose character, often depicted as a scholar or a doctor.

  • Columbina: A maidservant, she is often depicted as more intelligent than her “masters”, acting as a foil to Arlecchino. Did not wear a mask.

  • Brighella: A cunning and untrustworthy servant, who is more self-sufficient and aggressive than Arlecchino.

  • Il Capitano (The Captain): A boastful and cowardly character, usually depicted as a braggart soldier. 


Commedia dell'Arte holds immense importance in the realm of theatre arts as it introduced the concept of the professional actor. The troupes were usually traveling companies that performed in outdoor makeshift stages, and they were among the first to include female performers. It also contributed significantly to the evolution of comedy and improvisational theatre.


The influence of Commedia dell'Arte can be seen in various forms of theatre, literature, and performing arts, such as:

  • Molière’s Comedies: Many of Molière's works are influenced by the stock characters and the comedic style of Commedia dell'Arte.

  • Shakespearean Comedy: Elements reminiscent of Commedia dell'Arte are found in some of Shakespeare’s comedies, including the use of stock characters and farcical situations.

  • Opera Buffa (Comic Opera): Developed in the 18th century, it has several elements borrowed from Commedia dell'Arte, including stock characters and improvisational scenarios.

  • Modern Improv Theater: The improvisational and scenario-based aspects of Commedia dell'Arte have significantly influenced contemporary improvisational theatre techniques.


Though not performed widely today in its original form, the legacy of Commedia dell'Arte continues through the numerous theatrical practices, genres, and works it has influenced. Its contribution to the improvisational theatre and the creation of stock characters has had a long-lasting impact on the development of theatre arts worldwide.


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