In medieval Italy, the arti were groups of artisans or guilds; hence the term means ‘comedy of the professional actors’. The absolute origins of this dramatic genre are obscure, but they are probably Roman. Also known as “Italian comedy,” it was a humorous theatrical presentation performed by professional actors who traveled in troupes throughout Italy in the 16th century.
The plots of commedia dell’arte were usually based on love intrigues involving people of all ages; masters and servants, mistresses and confidantes. Both plot and dialogue were often improvised after basic rehearsal (improvisation was important because performance could be adapted to local and contemporary needs) and the success of a piece depended very largely on the comic ingenuity of the performers, who would include mime, farce, clownish buffoonery and music in the presentation. Characters were stock types. The main male characters were: Pantaloon, the Captain, a Doctor, the Inamorato, the servants Harlequin, Brighella and Scapino. The main female characters were also stock types. There was Inamorata, her confidante the Soubrette – as like as not in love with one of the servants – plus Canterina and Ballerina who provided interludes in the main action. In spirit, if not in fact, a play like Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors (1594) owes something to the traditions of commedia dell’arte, and one can detect the influence of the form in the work of Ben Jonson, Molière, and Goldoni; in pantomime, farce, puppet plays and ballet.
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