Commedia dell’arte has three main stock roles: servant, master, and innamorati. The players/actors would then take to the streets, and play their characters to a scenario, in a play of improvisation. Some of the roles included:
- Arlecchino was the most famous. He was an acrobat and a wit, childlike and amorous. He wore a cat–like mask and motley colored clothes and carried a bat or wooden sword.
- Brighella, Arlecchino’s crony, was more roguish and sophisticated, a cowardly villain who would do anything for money.
- Il Capitano (the captain) was a caricature of the professional soldier—bold, swaggering, and cowardly.
- Il Dottore (the doctor) was a caricature of learning—pompous and fraudulent.
- Pantalone was a caricature of the Venetian merchant, rich and retired, mean and miserly, with a young wife or an adventurous daughter.
- Pedrolino was a white–faced, moon–struck dreamer and the forerunner of today’s clown.
- Pulcinella, as seen in the English Punch and Judy shows, was a dwarfish humpback with a crooked nose, the cruel bachelor who chased pretty girls.
- Scarramuccia, dressed in black and carrying a pointed sword, was the Robin Hood of his day.
- The handsome Inamorato (the lover) went by many names. He wore no mask and had to be eloquent in order to speak the love declamations.
- The Inamorata was his female counterpart; Isabella Andreini was the most famous. Her servant, usually called Columbina, was the beloved of Harlequin. Witty, bright, and given to intrigue, she developed into such characters as Harlequine and Pierrette.
- La Ruffiana was an old woman, either the mother or a village gossip, who thwarted the lovers.
- Cantarina and Ballerina often took part in the comedy, but for the most part their job was to sing, dance, or play music.
There were many other minor characters, some of which were associated with a particular region of Italy such as Peppe Nappa (Sicily), Gianduia (Turin), Stenterello (Tuscany), Rugantino (Rome), and Meneghino (Milan).
It is a half-mask improvisated theatre that is most often associated with 16th century Venice. It has influenced theatre, ranging from the Elizabethan works of Shakespeare to the teaching of Lecoq.
The works of a number of playwrights have featured characters influenced by the Commedia dell’arte and sometimes directly drawn from it. Prominent examples include The Tempest written by William Shakespeare, Servant of Two Masters (1743) by Carlo Goldoni, Les Fourberies de Scapin by Molière, and the Figaro plays of Pierre Beaumarchais. Influences appear in the lodgers in Steven Berkoff‘s adaptation of Franz Kafka‘s The Metamorphosis.
Through their association with spoken theatre and playwrights Commedia figures have provided opera with many of its stock characters. Mozart‘s Don Giovanni sets a puppet show story and comic servants like Leporello and Figaro have commedia precedents. Soubrette characters like Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, Zerlina in Don Giovanni and Despina in Cosi fan tutte recall Columbina and related characters. The comic operas of Gaetano Donizetti, such as Elisir d’amore, draw readily upon commedia stock types. Leoncavallo‘s tragic melodrama Pagliacci depicts a commedia dell’arte company in which the performers find their life situations reflecting events they depict on stage.