This richly illustrated book is a survey of character types in commedia dell’arte – a form of bawdy, physical comedy well known in early modern Europe. The book was produced by the French artist, Maurice Sand, a pseudonym for Maurice Dudevant (1823–1889). It has 50 vibrant engravings by Alexandre Manceau, with dates showing when each character was popular. There is also a preface by Maurice’s mother, the writer George Sand.
Originating in Renaissance Italy, but achieving popularity across Europe, commedia dell’arte is a special type of improvised comedy. It involves stock characters – comic servants, young lovers, self-important pedants and soldiers – each one recognisable by stylised costumes, masks and exaggerated gestures. Troupes of Italian players may have travelled through London in the 16th century, and Shakespeare drew on the tradition in comedies such as Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It and The Tempest.
The absurd, old Pantaloon figure (described more fully below) is the commedia stereotype most frequently mentioned by Shakespeare. In The Taming of the Shrew, Bianca’s elderly suitor Gremio is introduced as a ‘pantaloon’ in the Stage Directions (1.1.47) and later (3.1.37). In As You Like It, Jaques’s famous speech on the seven ages of man represents the sixth age with an image of the ‘lean and slipper’d pantaloon’ (2.7.158–60).
Many of Shakespeare’s clown-figures also show characteristics of commedia dell’arte zanies – poor buffoons or jesters, who often swapped places with their masters, or imitated their masters’ actions in an absurd way.