Commedia dell’arte Conventions

Commedia dell’arte, a form of rehearsed improvised comedy, is a popular component of drama education programs at high schools and universities partly because it has clear acting techniques, simple staging and hilarious plots lines.


– Commedia dell’arte English translation: comedy of the artists (or professionals).
– Pronunciation: co-MAY-dee-ah del AR-tay.
– Formal performances began in Italy in the mid-1500s, soon spreading to France and Spain (where they were very popular) and other parts of Europe.
– Eventually died out about two hundred years later in the mid-1700s.
– Most popular period was 1550 to 1650.
– Some scholars argue the Commedia can be traced back to the Atellan farces of Roman times.
– Most notable for its mix of masked and unmasked characters, plus the fact that women were acting on the Commedia stage well before they were allowed to act in England (Charles II, Restoration, 1660).



With few exceptions, all characters of the Commedia dell’arte belonged to one of three categories: masters, lovers, servants.
Masters: adults, landowners, merchants, businessmen etc.
– Most popular masters were Pantalone, Dottore, Capitano.
Lovers: young attractive ladies, handsome effeminate men.
Servants (zanni, pl.): typically young, most often male, witty (sometimes stupid), physical.
– Most popular and recognisable servant was Arlecchino (Harlequin).
All characters were:
– one-dimensional
– stereotypical
– caricatured
– satirical
– “stock” qualities (conventional, repeated, anticipated, unchanged)
– Commedia characters did not develop or learn from previous mistakes.


– All Commedia characters are referred to as “masks”, meaning “character type”, which includes the actual mask (if worn).
– As a general rule, characters who were lovers were unmasked.
– Even unmasked characters were referred to as “masks”.
– Male master and servant characters were masked.

Plot and Structure

– Scripts consisted only of scene descriptions, known as scenarios.
– Dialogue, while rehearsed, was improvised and could differ from one performance to another.
– Plots were often risque and bawdy.
– About 800 Commedia scenarios survive today.

Performance Spaces

– Initially performances occurred outdoors: in the streets, at market places and fairs.
– Performances moved indoors when public theatres began to be built in the 1700

Acting Techniques

– Often very fast dialogue.
– Physical comedy (precursor to modern physical theatre style).
– Adequate projection essential, due to outdoor performances and surrounding noise.
– Comedic qualities such as singing, dancing, acrobatics, tumbling etc.
– Slapstick an essential ingredient, particularly for servant characters.
– Exaggerated gestures, arm and leg movements.
– Fast-paced action.
– Exemplary comic timing.
– Many individual characters have specific acting techniques unique to their character.



– Normally consisted of twelve performers.
– Run by themselves, with a head actor / company manager (Capocomico)
– Actors were full-time professionals.
– Actors normally played the same Commedia character for their entire career.
– Most prominent was the Gelosi troupe (1570-1604).

Related Posts

Commedia dell’arte Character Names
Commedia dell’arte Characters Gallery


Brockett, Oscar, The Essential Theatre.
Brockett, Oscar, The History of the Theatre.
Brockett, Oscar, The Theatre: An Introduction.
Crawford, Jerry, Acting: in Person and In Style.
Rudlin, John., Commedia dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook.

11 Responses

  1. Elliot says:

    The 3 knocks means that it is the end of the act and there will be an intermision while the characters rest for the next scene.

  2. Elliot says:

    Very Nice

  3. Michael Wresinski says:

    What do the 3 knocks before performance mean?

  4. Jade Nutt says:

    I think this website is really good due to year 10 drama is hard and seeming ive got one year till my GCSE and I really think this website is really good and clever to use, but I think this website would be really good for all subjects but different titles, really good for drama, since I have started drama it has helped loads!


  5. Someone says:

    – Pronunciation: co-MAY-dee-ah del AR-tay.
    Actually, it’s Italian, so it would be Com-MEH-dee-a del-LAHRT-eh. The way you said it is the way someone ignorant of the pronounciation would attempt to pronounce it.
    Ps: I’ve trained in it when I was fourteen and live in a town with a lot of Italians and am half it myself.
    Have a nice day! 🙂

  6. Georgi says:

    Does this decsribe the time of Othello

  7. ben smit says:

    Really good type of drama cuz

  8. John says:

    I’m currently writing my final paper for Development of Drama I class at Wayne State University in Detroit, and this article has covered nearly everything that My professor lectured about in class. Well done article, the only thing I would add is the distinctions between characters. There is Pantalone, Harlequin, Columbina, Datore, Capiotano, Zanni and others that transfer between plays, even as their names change.

  9. Cindy Gunn says:

    Hello–is there access to any video or websites that offer students the commedia character movement for study? Some of my students have to submit a demonstration and I am not trained in this art form.
    Thank you for all you do!

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