The figure of the harlequin is a bewitching, enigmatic figure who lives in a modern pantomime, at once a posturing and acrobatic figure, attired in a mask and parti-coloured spangled tights. He is a most charismatic, and mysterious figure which has transfixed us in relentless tale after tale for decades. The roots and etymology of the title are just as spellbinding.
It is generally assumed that Harlequin was transferred to France from the ‘Arlecchino’ of Italian medieval and Renaissance popular comedy, however this is incorrect. The origination of the ‘Herlekin’ can be found in French literature as early as 1100; he had already become proverbial as a ragamuffin of demonic appearance and character. In 1262, herlekins made an appearance in a play by Adam de la Halle as intermediaries of King Hellekin, prince of Fairlyland, in courting Morgan le Fay. It wasn’t until later that the French Herlekin was transformed into the Italian Arlecchino. In French form, the harlequin was a spirit of the air, thus deriving the characteristic invisibility. Subsequently, the harlequin was imported into light comedy, and his various attributes were characterised in pantomime form.
Harlequin is the most popularly known of the zanni or comic servant characters from the Italian Commedia dell’arte and its descendant, the Harlequinade.
One of the origins suggested for the modern Harlequin is Hellequin, a stock character in French plays of passion. Hellequin, a black-faced envoy of the devil, is said to have roamed the countryside with a group of demons chasing the damned souls of evil humans to Hell. The physical appearance of Hellequin offers an explanation for the traditional colours of the Harlequin’s mask (red and black) as Hellequin is the leader of la Mesnee d’Hellequin, thought to be related to the Old English Herla, a character often identified with Woden.
Although illustrations of Arlecchino have only been dated as far back as 1572, the character had existed before this date. The origins of the name are uncertain; some say it comes from Dante’s Inferno, one of the devils in Hell having the name Alichino.
The harlequin is certainly a creature of likeness of no other, a creature entirely unto its own.