History of Clowns and Clowning

Modern day clowning is a far cry from the buffoonery and satire of history.

The origin of the English word “clown” is uncertain, but it is thought to have come from a Scandinavian or Teutonic word for “clod,” which means a coarse or boorish fellow, a lout. Clowning goes far back into history. Traces of it appear in Greek burlesque and on the Roman stage.

Throughout the Middle Ages, kings and nobles had their clowns: Fools and Court Jesters who were privileged characters as long as what they said and did amused their masters. These were often gifted musicians, mimics, skilled dancers, and acrobats, full of wit and impertinence.

The fool carried a mock sceptre, called a Marotte, which was a stick with a carved head and tassels. He often used the marotte to protect his master.

The fool of early history wore a hood with donkey ears and, often, a tail on his costume. This was to portray how "asinine" he was - and object of ridicule and not to be taken seriously. The hood and tail evolved into a three-pointed cap with bells at the ends. The pointed cap and tasseled scepter became symbols of these jesters.

On the old English stage a clown was a privileged laugh provoker. He had no real part in the drama, but carried on his jokes and tricks, sometimes addressing himself to the delighted audience instead of confining himself to the stage action. Shakespeare elevated the clown, giving him a speaking part, often using him as a “comic relief” to ease the tension in his tragedies. The grave diggers in Hamlet are clowns. Othello had his clown. Launcelot Gobbo was Shylock's famous clown. Find out more about Shakespeare's Clowns.

In France, the Pierrot in his signature costume and powdered face was a happy, lighthearted clown, also an accomplished dancer. The Pierrot's character has changed over time and is now typically a romantic, sad figure, often with a tear painted on his white cheek. The female counterpart is called Pierette.

Buy at Art.com
French Jester Holding a "...
Buy From Art.com

Learn more about clowns with these products from amazon.com

Although the name Harlequin is French, it is believed that the Arlecchino character originated in Italy with 'Alichino' from Dante's Inferno. Distinguished by his black mask, shaved head, and expert acrobatics, this was a favorite character in the Commedia dell'Arte. As the character evolved through history, Harlequin became a romantic hero, popular in Pantomime.

Italy gave us Pantaloon, originally Pantaleone, of serious face and baggy trousers. From Italy, too, came the interpretation of the clown as a tragic figure, laughing while his heart was breaking. Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci," the popular opera, is the best example of this. The 1928 silent film "Laugh Clown, Laugh" was based on this opera.

Germany gave us the painted clown face, often showing no personal expression. The German costume of the character called Pickelherring has evolved into what we now recognize as typical clown, with oversized shoes and a ruff at the collar.

Would you like to know more about the different clown types or specific characters like Pierrot or Zanni? And what about clowns on stilts?

Return to top of Clown History page

Home Page

Clown History