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Harlequin to Harley Quinn: The theatrical history behind DC’s rising star.

From Birds of Prey to her brand-new animated series, Harley Quinn has been flying high lately. Since her first appearance in 1992, Harley has been charming her way into fans’ hearts with her wise cracking, acrobatic over-the-top villainy. With her own comic, her own tv series and her own movie, she’s come a long way from what was supposed to be the animated version of a walk on role. But where did she come from? By now it’s common fandom knowledge that Harley Quinn’s name is a play on the word “harlequin”, but you may have found yourself wondering what, exactly, is a “harlequin”? To find that out, we need to head back to Italy in the 16th century to find the roots of one of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s most theatrical villains.

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.

Mischievous and acrobatic, Harlequin was the audience favourite. Though the role was typically played by a male, we can see glimpses of Harley Quinn in Harlequin. Like Harley, Harlequin was known for his boundless energy, his acrobatic skills and for actions that were a little over the top. He was a servant character (not too different from a henchman or henchwoman) and was portrayed anywhere from being faithful to his master to scheming to meet his own objectives depending on the situation. He was generally charming, but often swung between being witty and being silly. Harlequin had a love interest in the servant girl Columbina, but their relationship could often be portrayed as slightly lopsided, with Columbina sometimes outright making fun of Harlequin (alas, there are no historical records of him ever addressing her as “puddin,” but you get the gist).

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.