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Arlecchino in the Commedia dell'arte
Harlequin depiction by Paul Cézanne , 1890

The harlequin, derived from the Italian arlecchino , which in turn goes back to the old French words (h) arlekin, (h) alderkin, (h) ellequin, harlequin and similar from the 12th century, is a stage figure that is considered a centuries-old and Europe-wide phenomenon consider is. It is associated with the Commedia dell'arte of the Renaissance , the Commedia Italiana and other forms of the “comedy style” (based on Gerda Baumbach). However, the exact reconstruction of the origin of the harlequin is not possible. The name of the character can possibly be derived from the Italian word (h) ellechin (n) oexplain for “little devil” ( in (n) o is the masculine diminutive). Another possible derivation refers to the old English Herla Cyng , meaning "King of the Army ". Very generalized characteristics of the multi-layered figure are a patchwork costume, eccentric body movement, a black half mask and the execution of the harlequin jump “Eccomi!”. There are parallels to the mythological trickster figure .


The origin of the fictional character cannot be fully clarified. At the end of the 11th century, the chronicler Ordericus Vitalis reports that, as a later hiker on the Norman coast, he was persecuted by a "crowd of demons". This was led by a wild-looking, hooded giant armed with a club. The legend is known as the " wild hunt of the Herlequin people" or "familia herlequin", which frightened lonely people at night. This widespread idea ranges from the Germanic suite of Odins to the silent streak of fog in Goethe's ballad about the Erlkönig . The various ideas have in common that their attributes are mostly animal masquerades, barking, roaring and screeching, etc. The demonic, diabolical features are inherited from the coarse joker and buffoon Harlequin, in the form of the horn cap and the black half mask or grimaceous facial expressions.

Other approaches to fathom the origin of the harlequin figure remain vague and are nevertheless important for the later characterization of the figure. Peter Vitebsky writes “The shamanic crook survived in popular culture as a harlequin.” Vitebsky outlines the shamanic crook as a kind of doctor from an indefinite earlier time, whose work was somewhere between healing and deceiving his patients (cf. charlatan ). Attempts to characterize the harlequin that go along with this point to the far-reaching significance of the various facets of the figure, also for a contemporary view of theatricality. The harlequin as a figure of a double nature: crook and healer, priest and devil. Shaman and joker, artist and theater man of complex subversion.

The first recorded stage appearance of a harlequin took place in 1262: He appeared as the fool-bite croquesquot, probably wearing a devil mask and a hooded cloak, in Jeu da la Feuillière by Adam de la Halle . The costume already refers to the later wardrobe of the Arlecchino in the Italian Commedia dell'arte, but still has demonic or diabolical features. Dante Alighieri mentions a demon named Alichino in Canto 21 of the Inferno of his Divine Comedy (probably composed between 1307 and 1321). In 1314 the harlequin in the Charivari newspaper becomes a public shock.

However, the well-known form of the mask described was created by Tristano Martinelli, an actor from the Compagnia dei Comici Gelosi , who carved out the rural features from the mountain valleys of Bergamo . The harlequin's robe was made of coarse linen with colorful patches and a hare's tail on the cap as a sign of cowardice. The rhombic robe was only created by adapting it to the Parisian taste during the Paris guest performances by Domenico Biancolelli.

Other names for the Italian Arlecchino are, depending on the individual characteristics of the actors portraying it, Truffaldino (in Carlo Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters ), Mezzetino and Fritellino.

According to Rudolf Münz, understanding the fictional character of the harlequin is made more difficult by the prehistory that cannot be fully clarified. Münz marks the emergence of the modern harlequin theater in France in the 16th century. At the same time, he names the unfathomability of the previous and also geographically individual phenomena. In this context, his reference to the larger Harlequin family, namely the traveling people , the jugglers , ciarlatani and acrobats , is significant .

Costume, appearance and character

The following descriptions of the costume, appearance and character of the harlequin are based on the lowest common denominator of various manifestations of the phenomenon:

A characteristic piece of clothing of the harlequin is his patched costume, usually in the colors red, yellow and blue. In the course of the game, the harlequin often takes on various roles ( metamorphosis ). The flashing of the patchwork checks under other costumes often gives an indication of the transformation that has taken place.

A black eye mask hides the harlequin's face, sometimes a horn or bump indicates its diabolical nature. The mask is an expression of one of the basic characteristics of the character. The harlequin moves between worlds and different levels, jumping around between these worlds is made possible by the mask, which leaves infinite transformation open: With the help of the mask, the harlequin performs his characteristic game and he moves nimbly between different roles and opposing poles, well and evil, heaven and hell, servant and master, angel and devil. In short: he plays with the threads of the cosmos and does not get caught. At this point, the characteristics of the harlequin figure can be associated with the basic features of the “comedy style” (based on Gerda Baumbach). It can even be asserted that not only the harlequin's mask, but his entire, exaggerated, and thus “masked” body use enables jumping around between the worlds and thus undermining the current world order determined by norms. Gerda Baumbach writes: “In this way ambiguity can be created in almost any respect. This creates an »intermediate field« between fiction and reality, a sphere of flashy memories, imaginary games and dreams. "

He wears a cap on his head that was adorned with a rooster feather in the development phase of the harlequin in the 16th century, but later mostly with a fox or rabbit tail. Trousers like jacket or jacket are tight-fitting, the belt well below the navel. The primarily existential and physically focused favorite topics of the erratic and fun-making Harlequin are underlined by this lower body costume: Eating, constant hunger, eating, spitting, shitting, burping, eroticism, lust, love, death.

The harlequin always carries a board or a wooden sword, called a "batte", on his belt. Sometimes he carries a leather pouch with him for the ducats he steals with cunning.

The most important basic element of his repertoire is the harlequin saying. The harlequin appears with an “Eccomi!” (“There I am!”) And Rudolf Münz sees this as a message from the figure of the double world, which shakes and subverts the social order. Furthermore, Münz mentions in connection with the harlequin jump “the familiarity of the audience with the (corresponding)» gestures «” as an important prerequisite for the functioning of the harlequin game. Expected jokes are followed by expected laughter and in combination with the subversive character of the figure, the harlequin can be seen as a lifeline for a society that is governed by norms.

Commedia Italiana and Commedia dell'arte

The Italian Arlecchino is one of the main characters in the Commedia dell'arte, which originated in Italy in the 16th century. The servant figure Arlecchino must be able to use a number of puns and jokes accurately and pointedly, since the pieces of the Commedia dell'arte mostly only consist of rough frameworks (for example "La piazza d'Isabella" in: I canovacci della Commedia dell'arte) and unlike classic dramas, they are not characterized by a fixed text and a plot. Arlecchino is a joker, exposes liars, directs fates and is a crowd favorite. He has always been the one who could say what others weren't allowed to.

The figure of the harlequin is often associated exclusively with the Commedia dell'arte as an Italian appearance. There is a twofold generalization here: it is important to regard both the Harlequin figure and the Commedia dell'arte as a pan-European phenomenon. With Rudolf Münz the two terms Commedia dell'arte and Commedia Italiana are clearly differentiated and allow a differentiation. The narrow term Italian Comedy (Commedia Italiana) specifically refers to phenomena in the Italian-speaking world, the Italian Harlequin is Arlecchino. Parallel to the Commedia Italiana there were similar and simultaneous occurrences, for example in German-speaking countries ( Hanswurst or Pickelhäring ). According to Münz, the broad term of commedia dell'arte is related to a whole series of such comedy phenomena outside of the Italian-speaking area. Since much in-depth, demythizing and competent research into the birth of the Commedia dell'arte is only available in Italian, despite this solid academic work, the common assumption remains that the Commedia dell'arte is viewed as an exclusively Italian phenomenon. Without questioning the importance of Italian influences on the Commedia dell'arte, Münz suggests limiting Italian phenomena to the term Commedia Italiana and using the term Commedia dell'arte to consider comedies in a pan-European context. According to Münz, this even increases the importance of the “national-Italian basis”. This differentiation makes it possible to consider the Commedia dell'arte and, as a result, the significant figure of the harlequin, detached from the chronology and unity that was superimposed in retrospect, and to treat the harlequin as a European figure with a wide range of time and place.

Beginning of exile and importance of the Enlightenment

Johann Christoph Gottsched saw the Harlequin as a nuisance because its comedy was anarchic and only existed as an end in itself. In addition, the harlequin does not shy away from profanity and is therefore not suitable for conveying moral principles in the sense of enlightenment . Furthermore, fool figures are fantastic figures, i.e. literary inventions, whereas Gottsched took the view that literary figures should have contact with reality in order to be able to act morally instructive. Under the direction of Friederike Caroline Neuber , a harlequin doll was burned on the stage in 1737, which symbolized its expulsion from the Enlightenment theater world.

There is a break in the course of theater history that has made the harlequin disappear from the popular stage. The beginning of this break can be seen on the one hand in the popularization of ideas from the Enlightenment. It is important, however, not to view this development as a linear-chronological phenomenon with the single cause of “clarification”. Changes in political and state structures, the transition from a court theater to a national theater and the rise of enlightenment ideas are closely intertwined. It can be said that the harlequin is difficult to reconcile with a theater which, because of this interweaving, is increasingly functioning as an instrument that constitutes a nation or culture. If one asks the question of the underlying reason for the exile of the harlequin from a theater-scientific point of view, one inevitably arrives at the overall context of the “comedy style” (after Gerda Baumbach) and its devaluation over the centuries.

The "comedy style" and the harlequin figure anchored in it stands for existential topics such as securing life, corporeality, death or sexual desire and is characterized by eccentric play, exaggeration and unnatural movement full of corporeality. The Age of Enlightenment, as already indicated in the above paragraph, stands for the power of reason, morality as the highest commandment and the use of the mind in contrast to the impulsive and body-oriented lifestyle. As these ideas grow stronger, everything that goes against them is devalued. This devaluation finds its way into all areas of social life, including thinking about theater, which from now on is to become a place for conveying moral and intellectual ideas. Telling stories by means of exaggerated corporeality and impulsiveness, as is the hallmark of a “comedy style”, cannot meet these requirements. From the choice of topic to performance, the uncouth theater of the comedic harlequin no longer appears worthy of the stage.

The harlequin principle according to Rudolf Münz

Rudolf Münz is the director of his anthology Theatricality and Theater. For the historiography of theatrical structures from the characteristics of the harlequin, a timeless meaning of the figure and examines the harlequin phenomenon against the background of theatrical structures. The resulting essay is entitled "The Harlequin Principle". In this essay, the harlequin is first and foremost described as “the genius of life”: the harlequin takes the world's market place for himself by chopping a tree.

Münz also thematizes the disappearance of the harlequin figure and stretches the bow up to the present day. He suggests that industrialization has brought to an end what the Enlightenment had already begun: the banishment of the harlequin, who has no place in a world determined by economic growth and consumption as well as intelligence and rules. However, Münz then emphasizes the timelessness of the harlequin phenomenon and gives this timeless phenomenon the name "Harlequin principle". So how can the character traits of a stage character become a principle? In summary, it is about the subversive effect of the harlequin figure on order structures in the world, made possible by his restless jumping around between levels, roles and opposing poles. The harlequin can play with everything: with fiction and reality, with good and bad, right and wrong, heaven and hell. Through this game he creates spaces and opens doors that allow creativity and utopias. He is the master of infinite change and laughter. He is the mastermind of the cosmos and keeps the creative power of the spaces alive.


VW Beetle special model 1600i "Harlequin"
Erika Harbort : "Harlequin" (1987)

“Look at the harlequins! [...] Trees are harlequins, words are harlequins. Add two things together - jokes, pictures - and you have a triple harlequin. Come on! Game! Invent the world! Invent reality! "

  • A special model of the VW Polo III was named "Harlequin" because of its multicolored paintwork, and there was also a special model of the VW Beetle 1600i from Mexico as a Harlequin special edition.
  • The harlequin is the logo of the Lacrimosa music project .
  • " Carnival of the Harlequin " is a painting by Joan Miró from 1924/1925.
  • The biggest Hertha BSC - Ultra grouping "Harlequin" is called.
  • The debut album by the German rapper Favorite is called " Harlekin ".
  • A serious hereditary disease is called " Harlequin ichthyosis " (Ichthyosis gravis).
  • Harlequin and Harlequin Returns are two adventure books from the role-playing game Shadowrun .
  • "Harlequin" is an overture for wind orchestra by Franco Cesarini .
  • An English rugby team is called " Harlequins ".
  • The third movement from Carnaval op. 9 for piano by Robert Schumann is entitled “Arlequin” .
  • In the collection of short stories The Mysterious Mr. Quin by Agatha Christie (German: The strange Mr. Quin) one of the main characters is named "Mr. Harley Quin "; in many places reference is made to the figure of the harlequin in the Commedia dell'arte.
  • In the book Malfuria by Christoph Marzi , the protagonists fight against dark figures, who are described as shadows with harlequin masks.
  • Harlequins are a continually occurring element in Jonas Burgert's paintings .
  • "Harlequin" is the name for the black and white coat color in animals.
  • Harley Quinn is the name of a comic series that was published by the American publisher DC from 2000 to 2003, as well as the protagonist of this series. The series, a spin-off from Batman , was about a mentally ill former psychologist named "Dr. Harleen Quinzel ”, who is inlove withBatman's archenemy, the Joker . Harley Quinn wears a fool's costume with harlekinesque diamonds.
  • Harlequin is the original English title of the historical novel The Archer by Bernard Cornwell . In addition, the antagonist of this novel is called "Harlequin".
  • Truffaldino from Bergamo is a Soviet film about a harlequin who serves two gentlemen at the same time.
  • Insects: harlequin bear , a vividly colored moth , and the harlequin jumping spider (actually: zebra jumping spider ).
  • The rag clown, a figure of the Cologne Carnival, emerged from the harlequin.
  • In the Warhammer40k series, members of a cult from the Eldar people are referred to as "Harlequins". They are characterized by extremely fast movements, clothes that constantly change in color and pattern and a tendency towards extravagant rituals. The harlequins are intelligent, inscrutable and devious, which makes them deadly opponents.
  • A motorcycle club that was founded in Munich in 2008 is called "Arlecchinos". Your mark is a skull wearing a fool's cap.
  • In the multiplayer mode of the video game Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood , the Harlequin ("Harlequin") is one of the playable characters.

See also


  • Gerda Baumbach : actor, historical anthropology of the actor. Volume 1. Universitätsverlag, Leipzig 2012, ISBN 978-3-86583-611-3 .
  • Margot Berthold, Hans Otto Rosenlecher: Komödiantenfibel. Juggler, puppet, harlequin. Staackmann, Munich 1979, pp. 51-62, ISBN 3-920897-65-X .
  • AK Djiwelegow: Commedia dell'Arte. The Italian folk comedy. Henschel, Berlin 1958.
  • David Esrig (Ed.): Commedia dell'arte. A visual history of the art of the spectacle. Greno, Nördlingen 1985
  • Kristine Hecker: The women in the early Commedia dell'arte troops. In: Renate Möhrmann (ed.): The actress. On the cultural history of female stage art. Insel, Frankfurt am Main 1989, pp. 27-58.
  • Rudolf Münz: Theatricality and Theater. On the historiography of theatrical structures. Schwarzkopf & Schwarzkopf, Berlin 1998, ISBN 978-3-89602-199-1 .
  • Barbara Ränsch-Trill : Harlequin. On the aesthetics of laughing reason. Georg Olms, Hildesheim / Zurich / New York 1993, ISBN 3-487-09689-7 .
  • Wolfgang Theile (Ed.): Commedia dell'arte. History, theory, practice. Harrasowitz, Wiesbaden 1997, ISBN 978-3-447-03881-2 .
  • Peter Vitebsky: Shamanism. Taschen, Cologne 2001

Web links

Commons : Harlequin  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Harlequin  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Baumbach, Gerda; Actors, Historical Anthropology of Actors, p. 246 ff.
  2. See the section under " Wild Hunt " and the corresponding section on the discussion page
  3. See Baumbach, Gerda; Actors, Historical Anthropology of Actors, p. 154
  4. Vitebsky, Peter; Shamanism, p. 90
  5. See Vitebsky, Peter; Shamanism, p. 90
  6. a b Rudolf Münz: Theatricality and Theater. Schwarzkopf & Schwarzkopf, Berlin 1998, p. 61.
  7. Baumbach, Gerda; Actors, Historical Anthropology of Actors, p. 246 ff.
  8. See Baumbach, Gerda; Actors, Historical Anthropology of Actors, pp. 151–153.
  9. Baumbach, Gerda; Actors, Historical Anthropology of Actors, p. 246
  10. See Baumbach, Gerda; Actors, Historical Anthropology of Actors, p. 154 and p. 185
  11. Cf. Münz, Rudolf; Theatricality and theater. P. 62
  12. ^ Münz, Rudolf; Theatricality and theater. P. 62
  13. Cf. Münz, Rudolf; Theatricality and theater. Pp. 141-148.
  14. Baumbach, Gerda; Actors, Historical Anthropology of Actors, p. 246 ff.
  15. See Baumbach, Gerda; Actors, Historical Anthropology of Actors, p. 172 and p. 185
  16. ^ Rudolf Münz: Theatricality and Theater. On the historiography of theatrical structures. Berlin 1998, p. 60.
  17. ^ Rudolf Münz: Theatricality and Theater. On the historiography of theatrical structures. Berlin 1998, pp. 60-63.
  18. March 7, 1341 - Cologne Carnival first mentioned in writing in WDR 5: Zeitzeichen from March 7, 2011, accessed on July 1, 2017.
  19. ↑ The club's website