The Commedia dell’arte literally means “theatre performed by actors of the Guilds”. In the XVIth century, the word “arte” was used to speak of a trade. The Commedia dell’arte was thus comedy played by those whose trade it was to make the public laugh, in other words, professional actors.
The Commedia dell’arte is a popular comedy genre which flourished in Italy in the XVIth century where each character used vernacular dialects of various regions of the country.
In order to play the many characters of the Commedia dell’arte the actors met as a group, or theatrical company. They would travel from city to city and they assemble their stage out in the streets or town squares; they would even sometimes travel to other countries. The actors improvised and embroidered upon a text based on a standard plot routine, whether written out or not. The comedy aspect of the many parts was mainly due to sheer physical gags or tomfooleries. The actors had to improvise and invent tricks and feats while on stage. To amuse their audience, they became acrobats, mimes, singers and musicians, just like clowns whose distant ancestors they are. Almost all the actors wore amask which did not cover the lower part of their face to allow free movement of the mouth. The actors could thus engage in multiple grimaces and were not prevented from speaking loud and clear.
As for the stock characters, there are four main ones: the Zannies or valets, the old men, the soldiers and finally characters without masks such as the lovers and their soubrettes. Certain stock characters were mandatory to the plot.
Moliere, as a child, frequently attended the Commedia dell’arte performances in Paris. He was inspired by these antics to write his own plays. It is thus that the Commedia dell’arte gave birth to comedy as we know it today