AskDefine | Define harlequin

Dictionary Definition

harlequin n : a clown or buffoon (after the Harlequin character in the commedia dell'arte) v : variegate with spots or marks; "His face was harlequined with patches"

User Contributed Dictionary



from Middle Dutch hellekijn, meaning little hell,then in French hellequin and in Italian Arlecchino, the name of a popular servant character in commedia dell'arte plays.


(US) IPA: /ˈhɑrləˌkwɪn/


  1. a pantomime clown, typically dressed in checkered clothes
    • 1749, Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling
      ... were certainly the worst and dullest company into which an audience was ever introduced; and (which was a secret known to few) were actually intended so to be, in order to contrast the comic part of the entertainment, and to display the tricks of harlequin to the better advantage.

Usage notes

  • Because of its origin in the name of an Italian theatrical character, English Harlequin is often used as a proper name.


  1. brightly coloured, especially in a pattern like that of a harlequin clown's clothes

Extensive Definition

Harlequin (Arlecchino in Italian, Arlequin in French) is the most popular of the zanni or comic servant characters from the Italian Commedia dell'Arte.


There are these theories about the origin of the term Harlequin:
  • Via Italian Arlecchino from Latin Herculinus, meaning "little Hercules", as if a skit form of the Hercules heroic character was one of various threads leading to its origin.
  • From the term Hellequin (leader of la maisnie Hellequin), possibly related to the Old English Herla Cyning (King Herla), a character usually identified with Woden, possibly also, the German Erlkönig (Elf King).
For more information about the origin of the Harlequin character, see Commedia dell'arte.

References in modern culture and other media

In today's culture, harlequins are seen quite often, especially in the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations. Harlequins frequently appear in pop culture, such as Harley Quinn from the Batman series and Harle from Square Enix's game Chrono Cross.

Literature and cinema

  • In the movie Moulin Rouge! there is a harlequin can can dancer.
  • The main character of Neil Gaiman's "Harlequin Valentine" (based on the ticket seller of Lisa Snellings-Clark's sculpture Crowded After Hours), invokes the spirit of Harlequin as he pursues his Columbina.
  • Marlow, in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness compares the Russian to a Harlequin, because his clothes resemble the traditional Harlequin costume. (Conrad, Joseph., "Heart of Darkness," (1902) Dover Thrift, New-York, 1990)
  • Agatha Christie wrote a number of short stories about The Mysterious Mr. Quin, an almost-supernatural figure who helps the elderly Mr. Satterthwaite to solve mysteries. She also featured the character of Harlequin in a sequence of poems entitled A Masque from Italy in her 1925 collection The Road of Dreams (reprinted in 1973 in Poems) and in her first-ever published magazine short story The Affair at the Victory Ball (1923), published in book form in the US in the 1951 collection The Under Dog and Other Stories and in the UK in Poirot's Early Cases in 1974.
  • Dorothy L. Sayers has Lord Peter Wimsey investigate a murder, while masquerading as a harlequin in the book, Murder Must Advertise.
  • In Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, one of the residents of Halloween town is the Harlequin Demon, a tentacle-headed monster with a pattern on its skin similar to the original harlequin costume.
  • In Bernard Cornwell's The Grail Quest trilogy, the leading character, Thomas of Hookton, searches for revenge after the murder of his father, and follows the track of a mysterious man called the Harlequin. He discovers that this man is in fact his cousin, Guy Vexille, who is working with powerful figures within the Catholics to find out the Holy Grail itself. The trilogy ends with the final battle between the two cousins.
  • In Devil May Cry 3 the Character "Jester" is rather like a Harlequin.
  • In the DC Comics Universe, the Joker's sidekick and on/off girlfriend is Harley Quinn, who wears a clown costume and has a playful, tricky personality.
  • Harlequin is a British spy in Prague in the book The Golem's Eye, by Jonathan Stroud. He does not exemplify what most people would think a harlequin looks like. Instead, he is a fat old man, who has a predilection for wearing black, and likes dramatic settings; for instance, he has the main character, Nathaniel, meet him in an overflowing graveyard.
  • In John Twelve Hawks' Fourth Realm Trilogy (including The Traveler and The Dark River), a secret international organization known as the Tabula is intent on total control of human society and its populace through the use and manipulation of vast information networks. In this present-day world, Harlequins are warriors trained in combat and subterfuge sworn to protect Travelers, genetically-gifted individuals with the ability to project their souls to other realms. As these Travelers are perceived as a threat to a perfectly ordered and controlled society, the Tabula is determined to harness or destroy them, with only the Harlequins standing in their way.
  • In Chrono Cross the Character Harle is a Harlequin.
  • "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman is a popular science fiction short story by Harlan Ellison. It illustrates a dystopian future where punctuality is the law, and the main character named Harlequin displays the rebellious and mischievous nature of the harlequin archetype.
  • Harlequin is a powerful elf character in at least two of the "Shadowrun" role play books published by FASA.


  • Harlequins are mentioned in the song Lying Is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off by Panic at the Disco. ("Testosterone boys and harlequin girls, will you dance to this beat and hold a lover close?")
  • Harlequins are also mentioned in the song Pink Hearts, Yellow Stars (Harlequin Lover) by Chicosci
  • Philip Sparke is a composer who wrote "Harlequin" for concert band, a piece which takes its inspiration from the happy and sad faces from the Italian Comedia Dell'Arte. It is a work in two movements; a slow ballad followed by a frenetic faster movement. The piece was dedicated to and had a solo for David Childs. David and Steven Mead are both euphonium virtuoso willingly head by a broad audience.
  • Progressive metal band Opeth has a song entitled "Harlequin Forest" on their 2005 album Ghost Reveries.
  • The British rock band Genesis had a song called Harlequin on their 1972 album Nursery Cryme
  • In the opera Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavalla, the character of Beppe plays the Harlequin role in the opera's 'play within a play.'
  • Harlequin appears in Richard Strauss' opera Ariadne Auf Naxos (another case of a 'play within a play,' or in this case an 'opera within an opera').



harlequin in Catalan: Arlequí
harlequin in German: Harlekin
harlequin in Spanish: Arlequín
harlequin in French: Arlequin
harlequin in Italian: Arlecchino
harlequin in Japanese: アルレッキーノ
harlequin in Norwegian: Harlekin
harlequin in Polish: Arlekin
harlequin in Portuguese: Arlequim
harlequin in Russian: Арлекин
harlequin in Finnish: Harlekiini
harlequin in Swedish: Harlekin
harlequin in Ukrainian: Арлекін

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Columbine, Dalmatian, Hanswurst, Harlequin, Pantalone, Pantaloon, Polichinelle, Pulcinella, Punch, Punchinello, Scaramouch, antigorite, bicolor, bicolored, buffo, buffoon, butterfly, candy cane, chameleon, check, checker, checkerboard, checkerwork, cheetah, chessboard, chrysotile, clown, colorful, colors in patches, colory, confetti, crazy, crazy quilt, crazy-work, daedal, dichromatic, divers-colored, firedog, fool, iris, jack-pudding, jaguar, jester, kaleidoscopic, leopard, mackerel, mackerel sky, many-colored, marble, marbled paper, marquetry, medley, merry-andrew, moire, mosaic, mother-of-pearl, motley, motley fool, multicolor, multicolored, multicolorous, nacre, ocelot, opal, ophite, parquet, parquetry, parti-color, parti-colored, patchwork, patchwork quilt, peacock, pickle-herring, plaid, polychromatic, polychrome, polychromic, prismal, rainbow, serpentine, serpentine marble, shot, shot silk, shot through, spectral, spectrum, tartan, tessellation, tesserae, thunder and lightning, tortoise shell, trichromatic, trichromic, tricolor, tricolored, two-tone, varicolored, variegated, variegated pattern, versicolor, versicolored, zany, zebra
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