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Harlequin or Arlecchino in Italian, Arlequin in French, and Arlequín in Spanish is the most popular of the zanni or comic servant characters from the Italian Commedia dell'arte and its descendant, the Harlequinade.


The name of Harlequin derives from Old French Hellequin, leader of la maisnie Hellequin, thought to be related to the Old English Herla, a character often identified with Woden.

Italian Arlecchino by folk etymology was associated with Latin Herculinus, "little Hercules".

Although illustrations of Arlecchino have only been dated as far back as 1572, the character had existed before this date. The origins of the name are uncertain: some say it comes from Dante's Inferno, XXI, XXII and XXIII; one of the devils in Hell having the name Alichino.

Popular theories suggest that he may have come from France, Africa, or Italy.
Harlequin, year 1761 by Maurice Sand
The notion that the Harlequin motif grew out of France is evidenced by Hellequin, a stock character in French passion plays. Hellequin, a black-faced emissary of the devil, is said to have roamed the countryside with a group of demons chasing the damned souls of evil people to Hell. The physical appearance of Hellequin offers an explanation for the traditional colours of Harlequin's mask (red and black).

The Harlequin character may have been based on or influenced by the Zanni archetype who, although a slow thinker, was acrobatic and nimble. Interpreted thus, Harlequin's distinctive motley costume may be a stylized variant of Zanni's plain white garb, designed to reflect the ad-hoc patching necessary to prevent the garment's degradation.

Characteristics and dramatic function

The primary aspect of Arlecchino was his physical agility. While generally depicted as stupid and gluttonous, he was very nimble and agile, and performed the sort of acrobatics the audience expected to see. The character would never perform a simple action when the addition of a cartwheel or flip would spice up the movement.

Within these restrictions the character was tremendously elastic. Various troupes and actors would alter his behavior to suit style, personal preferences, or even the particular scenario being performed. Some of the most famous actors were Tomaso Visentini ("Thomassin"), who performed with the Comédie-Italienne in 18th century Francemarker, and Tristano Martinelli.

He is typically cast as the servant of an innamorato or vecchio much to the detriment of the plans of his master. Arlecchino often had a love interest in the person of Columbina, or in older plays any of the Soubrette roles, and his lust for her was only superseded by his desire for food and fear of his master. Occasionally, Arlecchino would pursue the inamorata, though rarely with success, as in the Recueil Fossard of the 16th century where he is shown trying to woo Donna Lucia for himself by masquerading as a foreign nobleman. He also is known to try to win any given lady for himself if he chances upon anyone else trying to woo her, by interrupting or ridiculing the new competitor.

Despite Arlecchino's agility of body, his mind does not entertain the same capacities. He is a slow thinker, with some versions portraying him as able to entertain only one thought at a time—and he is often capable of confusing that, often while pointing at his own butt. This leads to a range of situations, including Lazzi where Arlecchino is tricked into thinking he himself is dead, when other more wily characters of the Commedia dell'Arte point out a range of unlikely symptoms. Pierre Louis Duchartre says that Arlecchino desperately tries to hide his lack of brains, to the point of seeming malicious in so doing; as in one scenario where Arlecchino is diguised as a doctor and prescribes ridiculous "remedies" that would certainly prove fatal if undergone.

He eventually became something more of a romantic hero around the 18th century, when his popularity provoked the Harlequinade.


Duchartre lists the following as variations on the Harlequin role:

Trivelino or Trivelin. Name is said to mean "Tatterdemalion." One of the oldest versions of Harlequin, dating to the 15th century. Costume almost identical to Harlequin's, but had a variation of the 17th century where the triangular patches were replaced with moons, stars and triangles. In 18th century Francemarker, Trivelino was a distinct character from Arlequin. They appeared together in a number of comedies by Pierre de Marivaux including L'Île des esclaves.

Truffa, Truffaldin or Truffaldino. Popular characters with Gozzi and Goldoni, but said to be best when used for improvisations. By the 18th century was a Bergamask caricature.

Guazetto. Costume like the old Zanni's but accessorized with a sort of poncho, or otherwise a giant three-tiered collar. Known for his dancing.

Zaccagnino. Character dating to the 15th century.

Bagatino. A juggler.

References in modern culture and other media

In today's culture, harlequins are seen quite often, especially in the New Orleansmarker Mardi Gras celebrations. Harlequins frequently appear in pop culture, such as Harley Quinn from the Batman series and Harle from Square Enix's game Chrono Cross.

Literature and cinema

  • In the movie Moulin Rouge! there is a harlequin can-can dancer.
  • The main character of Neil Gaiman's "Harlequin Valentine" (based on the ticket seller of Lisa Snellings-Clark's sculpture Crowded After Hours), invokes the spirit of Harlequin as he pursues his Columbina.
  • Marlow, in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, compares the Russian to a Harlequin, because his clothes resemble the traditional Harlequin costume. (Conrad, Joseph., "Heart of Darkness," (1902) Dover Thrift, New-York, 1990)
  • Agatha Christie wrote a number of short stories about The Mysterious Mr. Quin, an almost-supernatural figure who helps the elderly Mr. Satterthwaite to solve mysteries. She also featured the character of Harlequin in a sequence of poems entitled A Masque from Italy in her 1925 collection The Road of Dreams (reprinted in 1973 in Poems) and in her first-ever published magazine short story The Affair at the Victory Ball (1923), published in book form in the US in the 1951 collection The Under Dog and Other Stories and in the UK in Poirot's Early Cases in 1974.
  • Dorothy L. Sayers has Lord Peter Wimsey investigate a murder, while masquerading as a harlequin in the book, Murder Must Advertise.
  • In Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, one of the residents of Halloween town is the Harlequin Demon, a tentacle-headed monster with a pattern on its skin similar to the original harlequin costume.
  • In Bernard Cornwell's The Grail Quest trilogy, the leading character, Thomas of Hookton, searches for revenge after the murder of his father, and follows the track of a mysterious man called the Harlequin. He discovers that this man is in fact his cousin, Guy Vexille, who is working with powerful figures within the Catholics to find out the Holy Grail itself. The trilogy ends with the final battle between the two cousins.
  • In the DC Comics Universe, the Joker's sidekick and on/off girlfriend is Harley Quinn, who wears a Jester costume and has a playful, tricky personality.
  • Harlequin is a British spy in Prague in the book The Golem's Eye, by Jonathan Stroud. He does not exemplify what most people would think a harlequin looks like. Instead, he is a fat old man, who has a predilection for wearing black, and likes dramatic settings; for instance, he has the main character, Nathaniel, meet him in an overflowing graveyard.
  • In John Twelve Hawks' Fourth Realm Trilogy (including The Traveler and The Dark River), a secret international organization known as the Tabula is intent on total control of human society and its populace through the use and manipulation of vast information networks. In this present-day world, Harlequins are warriors trained in combat and subterfuge sworn to protect Travelers, genetically-gifted individuals with the ability to project their souls to other realms. As these Travelers are perceived as a threat to a perfectly ordered and controlled society, the Tabula is determined to harness or destroy them, with only the Harlequins standing in their way.
  • In Chrono Cross the Character Harle is a Harlequin.
  • "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman is a popular science fiction short story by Harlan Ellison. It illustrates a dystopian future where punctuality is the law, and the main character named Harlequin displays the rebellious and mischievous nature of the harlequin archetype.
  • In the book Ink by Hal Duncan, the first part of the book is an extended metaphor for a Harlequin story, with Jack playing the harlequin.
  • Harlequin is a powerful elf character in at least two of the "Shadowrun" role play books published by FASA.


  • The British rock band Genesis had a song called Harlequin on their 1971 album Nursery Cryme
  • American song writer/musician/artist Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices had a song called "Faking My Harlequin" on his 2009 solo album "The Crawling Distance"
  • In the opera Pagliacci (1892) by Ruggero Leoncavallo, the character of Beppe plays the Harlequin role in the opera's 'play within a play.'
  • In Tchaikovsky's famous and popular 1892 ballet The Nutcracker, Drosselmeyer brings a life-size Harlequin doll to the Christmas Party, and it dances for the guests.
  • Harlequin appears in Richard Strauss's opera Ariadne auf Naxos (1911-12), another case of a 'play within a play,' or in this case an 'opera within an opera'.
  • Arlecchino is the title of an opera by the Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), written between 1914 and 1916; a related work is his Rondò arlecchinesco (1915). The latter work inspired the Passeggiata arlecchinesca sopra un frammento di Busoni ("Rondò arlecchinesco"), written in 1981-82 by the English composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988).
  • Used in the first line of the Stephen Stills composition "Helplessly Hoping", recorded by the rock musical group Crosby, Stills and Nash.
  • Harlequin is also a Canadian rock band from Winnipeg, Manitoba.
  • Harlequin is also a Portland Oregon based Hip-Hop artist.
  • Harlequin Soul is also a psychedelic rock band from Southern California.
  • Folktronica Singer, Goldfrapp wears a Harlequin outfit on the cover art of her single, Happiness:)
  • Barry Manilow Dresses As A Harlequin In His Video Of Read'Em And Weep
  • Melodic Black Metal band Illnath has released a studio album entitled Second Skin of Harlequin.
  • The British Post-Punk band Killing Joke had a song titled "Harlequin" on their 1983 album Fire Dances.
  • Used in the Al Stewart Song "One Stage Before"
  • The third movement of Carnaval, Op. 9 by German composer Robert Schumann is a musical depiction of Harlequin.


Harlequins are mentioned in the song "Ultra Romantic Parallel Universe" by Phoebe Legere and Leonard Abrahams (Mercury UK), as well as "Lying Is The Most Fun A Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off" by Panic! at the Disco.
  • Harlequins are a faction of clandestine warriors in the The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks.

See also


  1. Online Etymology Dictionary
  2. harlequin - Definitions from
  3. Grantham, B., Playing Commedia, A Training Guide to Commedia Techniques, Nick Hern Books, London, 2000
  4. Rudlin, J., Commedia dell’Arte, An actor’s handbook, Routledge, London, 1994

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