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Harlequin to Harley Quinn: The theatrical history behind DC’s rising star.
Imagine you are living in an Italian village in the 1500s. You’re probably a peasant, maybe a tradesman or even a merchant if you’re lucky. Life is hard, you don’t have much education, but you still like to have fun. Of course, this is a village in the 1500s, so there’s a good chance there’s not much going on. Which means when the travelling theatre troupe rolls into town and sets up in the village square, you are so there. Since this is the 16th century, that theatre troupe is probably going to be putting on a new type of performance that is all the rage in Italy; Commedia Dell’arte.
Also known as Italian Comedy, Commedia Dell’arte is a form of improvisational theatre. The plots of each performance change from troupe to troupe and show to show, though they usually revolve around love intrigues and clever tricks to steal money and outwit people (sounds a little familiar, no?). What doesn’t change are the characters involved. Commedia Dell’arte uses a roster of stock characters that audiences (particularly 16th century audiences) would be familiar with; comic servants, young lovers, self-important know-it-alls and soldiers. Most troupes have about 10 or so characters. The most famous of these is the comedic servant Harlequin.
Like all comic book characters, Harley’s look has been updated several times since she first arrived on screen and page, but her original look of a tight fitting black and red suit is classic Harlequin. Along with some standard character traits, Commedia Dell’arte characters were also recognizable by their costumes, much like comic book characters are today. Harlequin himself wore a tight-fitting jacket, and trousers. In the beginning the costume was covered in brightly coloured patches, however those patches would eventually transform into the distinctive and iconic diamond pattern which the character became known for (fun fact - diamond patterns today are often called harlequin patterns). Harley, from her earliest incarnations has always sported a diamond or two (or four), from her first red and black jumpsuit to her newest tattoos. Like most Commedia Dell’arte characters, Harlequin wore a mask, usually with a black stocking cap that went around his chin and forehead. While Harley has recently ditched her own domino mask and jester cowl, there was definitely an element of Harlequin in that early getup.
One final iconic piece of a Harlequin’s whole look was his “slap stick”. This was a paddle made up of two pieces of wood that slapped together to produce a whacking sound when the paddle struck something, or someone (yes, this is where we get the term “slapstick comedy” from). Harlequin was notorious for going around and whacking people with the paddle. Sometimes this advanced the plot, sometimes this led to a magical transformation, but it always resulted in a sight gag. Giant mallet, anyone?
Writing the in 1800s, French historian Jean Francois Marmontel summed up the Harlequin character as follows: “his character is a mixture of ignorance, naivete, wit and grace…he is both a rake and an overgrown boy with gleams of intelligence and his mistakes and clumsiness often have a wayward charm”. While 2020’s Harley Quinn has moved away from her Harlequin counterpoint in many ways, growing as a character and maturing from her first appearances (goodbye, Joker!), it’s clear to see she comes from the legacy of a witty, theatrical character that has been captivating audiences for centuries. As she begins to step away from that legacy to rightfully take her own independent place in the comics pantheon and DC universe, we can’t wait to see where she goes next.