Close-up of men in harlequin costume

Long before the advent of circus clowns, mimes trapped in glass boxes and stand-up comedians, there were harlequins -- colorfully costumed tricksters whose role in theater productions and amusements at court was to keep audiences on their toes and fellow players in the dark.

Etymology of 'Harlequin'

The term "harlequin" comes from the 16th-century Middle French word "hellequin." Its translation is "demon" or "hellion" and aptly applies to someone whose purpose is to do tricks, break laws and keep everyone he meets off-balance and confused. The Italians also take credit for the harlequin label with their own word "arlecchino," which means "buffoon."

Harlequin Characteristics

A harlequin wears a close-fitting costume with tights that resembles a unitard. Its simplicity is to facilitate agility and acrobatics. The pattern is variegated with sharply contrasting colors, such as yellow and red or purple and orange. The harlequin wears a mask to hide his identity. Although his head is completely shaved, a harlequin often wears a cap that matches his costume and has bells sewn on to the tips. Harlequins do not speak; they convey everything through exaggerated movements and gestures.

Harlequin Props

The two standard props of a harlequin are a wooden sword for engaging in mock battles and a wooden fairy wand for casting fake spells on his companions. Harlequins are also pranksters and avail themselves of the belongings of others to fuel confusion and false accusations of theft.

The Commedia Dell'Arte

Harlequins are most commonly associated with Italian theatrical comedies during the 16th and 17th centuries. Known as commedia dell'arte, these were spirited plays about the foibles of the human condition, including courtship, sibling rivalries, inheritances and get-rich-quick schemes.

Always a Servant, Never a Master

Because harlequins are thought to be simpletons without any ambition, their role in a story is to be the clueless helpmates of main characters who are invariably involved in star-crossed romances. If the harlequin truly is a dimwit, he will botch the most simple task -- such as delivering flowers -- and cause his master to nearly lose his lady love. If he is a devious little sneak, the harlequin will conspire to better himself through trickery but will always end up being tricked himself.