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Literature Glossary

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Commedia Dell'Arte


You know those crazy masks with the long noses? Yeah, those ones. Those come from the commedia dell'arte, a 16th-century Italian theatrical form that was based mostly on—you guessed it—masks.

A few important things to know about this rather hilarious form of theater:

  • It was one of the first times women could be actresses. Take that, Shakespeare.
  • It was mostly improvised. Take that, um, SNL.
  • Each actor played one role and one role only. It would be like if Vin Diesel always played a butt-kicking, name-taking blockhead. Oh wait.
  • The actors (who were total pros) traveled around performing with tons of props instead of super intricate backdrops.

The most famous "type" that was developed by the commedia dell'arte was probably Arlecchino, the comic servant (zanni) who wasn't the brightest crayon in the box but could do somersaults with the best of them. Ever heard the word harlequin? Yeah, that's our boy.