In Renaissance Italy, commedia dell'arte referred to theatre performed by professional actors, skilled artisans rather than the scholars who performed more "serious" plays. Instead of performing from scripts, commedia actors used loose scenarios outlining their plots, but improvised most of their dialogue and stage business. Fortunately, many of these scenarios survive, several of them recorded by Flaminio Scala and published in 1611. The scenarios recorded by Scala and others exhibit highly elaborate plots, often rather bawdy in nature. Though they mostly revolve around young lovers trying to get together in spite of intransigent parents, they can explore more serious issues as well.
Because commedia shows had to be improvised anew with each performance, company members tended to specialize in certain stock characters. Actors might perform the same character throughout their entire careers, sometimes bequeathing a role to a family member when they retired or died. The companies tended to be based around families, and the most celebrated commedia troupe, known as I Gelosi (or "The Zealous Ones") centered on the Andreini family. Francesco Andreini, who took over the troupe in 1589, was famous for the role of Captain Spavento ("Captain Fright"), a braggart soldier descended from the miles gloriosus of Plautus. Other troupes also had captain figures, usually Spaniards, who sometimes went just by the name Il Capitano.
Even more famous than Andreini was I Gelosi's leading lady, Isabella Canali, who married Andreini in 1578, solidifying their artistic partnership. She played a sexy young widow whose love for a man frequently drove the plot. Fluent in several languages, she showed off her abilities in a scenario called Isabella's Madness, in which she spoke in a variety of languages and accents. Known for both her beauty and her wit, she entered a prestigious sonnet contest, and famously came in second only to Torquato Tasso, widely considered to be the greatest poet of his day. She also wrote a pastoral drama, Mirtilla, though she is better known for her improvised works.
Isabella used her own first name on stage, and she was so successful that many companies subsequently adopted the name Isabella for their heroines. Silvia and Flaminia were also used as names for heroines (sometimes known as inamorata), though those names tended to be used for young virgins rather than for widows. These women could be witty, but generally were not quite as shrewd as Isabella, who, being a widow, also possessed an independent fortune. The name of the male romantic lead varied, but popular first names included Cinthio, Flavio, Oratio, and Lelio. The male romantic leads frequently seemed as interchangeable as their names.
Another popular character was a greedy old man known as Pantalone. Since Pantalone was supposed to be a rich merchant, he would speak in a Venetian accent, as Venice was the center of commerce in Italy. He tried to disguise his age by wearing a tight-fitting Turkish outfit with red breeches, but the effect was purely comic. Pantolone usually got in the way of the lovers, either trying to marry the heroine himself or trying to marry her off to his friend, Dottore. This character was not necessarily a medical doctor, but a learned man schooled in law, philosophy, or other matters, so he spoke in the accent of the university town of Bologna. Dottore frequently tried to speak Latin, but one of the jokes was that he spoke Latin terribly. Audiences could quickly see that his learning was largely a sham.
Though the lovers usually performed without masks, Il Capitano, Pantalone, Dottore, and other characters wore grotesque masks covering most of their faces. Though actors could not use their facial expressions, the masks allowed them to use outrageous voices and twist their bodies into comic poses without seeming incongruous. Because comic business was improvised rather than written into the scenario, performers could use interchangeable bits known as lazzi ("jokes") they could reuse in different performances. Lazzi could be either verbal or physical, but were always designed to be highly entertaining. Specific lazzi could be written into scenarios, but they were also brought in whenever the energy of the piece began to sag.
Particularly adept at lazzi were the zannis, servant characters who engaged in rough, physical humor. Arlecchino was the most famous of the zannis. He wore a tight-fitting suit with multi-colored diamonds, which originally represented patches, but became more stylized over time. Other zannis included Brighella (a violent and cynical libertine), Pedrolino (an energetic simpleton who sometimes pretended to be mute), Scaramuccia (a quarrelsome braggart), Pulcinella (a pot-bellied rascal), Mezzetino (a valet in a striped costume who combined good traits with bad ones), Scapino (a schemer with a taste for fashion), and Coviello (a musical acrobat).
The zanni who was servant to the female lead was usually named Colombina. She frequently dressed like her mistress, but also wore a small apron. Another popular servant character was a country girl named Franceschina, who was sometimes played by a man. Franceschina was sexy, but could be grotesque, as opposed to the charming Colombine. An old woman, Pasquella, was sometimes friends with Isabella and could cause lots of comic mischief. In some scenarios, Pasquella could be a witch or a bawd.
Later on, the characters evolved and became popular figures in the theatres of other countries. Shakespeare refers to Pantalone as Pantaloon, and the popular mischief-maker Harlequin comes from Arlecchino. Pulcinella became Mr. Punch of Punch and Judy shows. In 17th-century France, Moliere adapted the character Scapino as Scapin, and his contemporary Tiberio Fiorilli became famous as Scaramouche, a version of Scaramuccia.