Over a thousand years ago European theater was made up of stories from the Bible or allegories of the church that were told on moving stages called pageant wagons. Mixed in with animal acts and the jongleurs, the troubadours and storytellers spaces were set aside a bustling area of the community. Maybe it was in front of the church or in the town square where enactments of passion plays, miracle plays, and morality plays linked to church holidays all over Europe. Then a revival of humanistic ideals brought about the Renaissance and a return to classical aesthetic principles. The theater underwent a rebirth in Italy’s exploding activity; it was then and there that Commedia dell'Arte was created. Ancient texts were rediscovered and employed for productions. Scene design, acting techniques, stage, and theatrical vocabulary all mushroomed. France, Germany, and Spain, too, saw theatrical innovation.

By the middle of the fifteen hundreds the man of the millennium William Shakespeare, actor and producer, as well as playwright plumbed the depths of human consciousness and character uttering profound truths like no one since. His language has filtered down to us along with Shakespeare’s inventive capacity to create phrases and develop word usages, which have become an enduring and integral part of the English language. There are dozens in common use which can be traced back to his plays: not budge an inch, green-eyed jealousy, to play fast and loose, to be tongue-tied, to be a tower of strength, sea change, insist on fair play, stand on ceremony, the game is afoot!, seen better days, living in a fool's paradise.

One of the words and its usages credited to him is none other than zany. The very nature of zaniness surely has to be foolish behavior that is gently unconventional, unexpected or idiosyncratic. 'Crazy' in a watered down sense sums it up best. It all began as a noun that described a performer in the Commedia dell'Arte, an improvised Italian comic form of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. One of the distinguishing traits of Commedia Dell'Arte was that it consisted of a set of stock characters or masks and each of these characters were well known to the audience. So much so that the actual scheme of the scenarios in Commedia Dell'Arte were insignificant. The audience arrived to watch the art because they wanted to see how the different characters in the story interacted with each other in the scenario they were challenged with. These commedia eccentrics fell into three main groups The Lovers, The Vecchi and The Zanni.

  • The Lovers are pairs of young men and women who are trying get together. This group of characters makes up the foundation of the plot in most Commedia Scenarios.
  • The Vecchi, or Old Men, are the ones who decide for various reasons that it has become their duty to keep the pairs of lovers apart. They want to destroy the plot of the scenarios. One example of a Vecchi is Pantaloon who was a character selfishly obsessed with money. Pantaloon comes from the town of Venice, as in Shakespeare's play, The Merchant of Venice which by the way just happens to be the source of a pantaloons character.
  • The Zanni are the group of characters in charge of distracting the Vecchi from their plot-destroying goal and there was also a character called Zanni who belongs to the same group. The Commedia del Arte in sixteenth century Italy soon dominated European theater. This highly improvised theater divided the characters into masters and servants. The Zanni were also called “servants” and there were three types of these comic servants: the First Zany, the Second Zany, and the Fantesca. The First Zany was typically a male servant who was a clever rogue who often conspired against the masters. The Second Zany was a dull witted male servant haplessly embroiled in the First Zany's schemes and frequently a victim of his pranks. The Fantesca was a female servant or a feminine version of one of the Zany characters and would share in the plotting and scheming while providing a romantic interest as a subplot among the servants.
Overall the primary purpose of a Zanni was to mimic or make fun of a primary character with ludicrous tricks. How the Italians came to call this conventional character Zanni stems from a dialectic nickname altered from the generic name Giovanni, the Italian equivalent of John, meaning 'our everyman.' In time Giovanni became shortened to Gianni, and then further affected by the Venetian to zannie

This zany or clowning servant in the Commedia used a variety of props and tools, sometimes lathes or thin strips of wood that delivered loud but painless blows. By smacking the two sticks together while swiping at a harlequins derriere it delivered the impression that an even harder contact was created. Either way all of this jocularity made for plenty of slap stick comedy.

Shakespeare was both familiar with and adored Commedia dell'Arte so it doesn’t take too far a leap of the imagination to realize that the word zany has been derived from the comic practices of the Zanni. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, clowning in England was primarily limited to the theatre as an art form. Shakespeare was the playwright for the Lord Chandler's Men acting troupe. Of the twenty-six principal actors in the Lord Chandler's Men listed in the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, two, William Kemp and Richard Armin, acted as clowns. Perhaps these Zanni were the ones that used comic extravaganza to put the shake in Shakespeare. The use of the word dates back as far as Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost a play of young lovers and an elaborate jeu d'esprit, that historians believe was written early in Shakespeare’s career, and over time extensively revised by him They speculate that it was created not for the public playhouse but more so for an aristocratic audience. Perhaps it was constructed for a performance before the queen at some great house where she was being entertained.

Love's Labour's Lost mirrors the foibles, the attitudes, the gossip, and the odd customs of literary London, along with the fashionable world of the court. In his stage representation Shakespeare borrowed certain 'types" from the Italian Commedia dell'Arte. Early in his drama a loud braggart, Don Adriano de Armado appears, the Zany in his play is named Moth, a pedant goes by the name Holofernes, Nathaniel as the parasite, Costard is the dim witted rustic, and Dull as the unlearned magistrate. These enduring stereotypes also showed up on the French and German stages eventually finding their way into comic operas.

The romantic comedy begins in a park outside a fictional yet maybe for the courtesan audience for whom it was written, a familiar court, of Navarre, where the young twenty-something King Ferdinand is caught up in a boisterous debate with his friend and advisor Berowne, on the subject of scholarship. It’s the contention of the idealistic young king who seeks, by will or decree that all men of the court should swear off earthly pleasures in favor of loftier pursuits. Everyone, but him of course, are against the idea; the sharp-tongued Berowne and the laughable Spanish courtesan Don Adriano de Armado protest the loudest. The play builds around these lamentation and intrigues that ensue while these men of honor fall into underhanded schemes to surreptitiously woo the women they love. In Berowne's long teasing rhymed speech, zany is used to describe someone of an unusual nature. The year the play was performed Queen Elizabeth had received as a New Year's present a white linen "smock" embroidered in black. Incidentally, this scenario from the play of the young courtier entertaining the Queen with his jests while shielding her from the heat of the fire is delightfully vivid.

    Some carry-tale, some please-man, some slight zany,
    Some mumble-news, some trencher-knight, some Dick,
    That smiles his cheek in years, and knows the trick
    To make my lady laugh when she's dispos'd,
    Told our intents before; which once disclos'd,
    The ladies did change favours.... (To Boyet) and might not you
    Forestall our sport, to make us thus untrue?
    Do not you know my lady's foot by the squire,
    And laugh upon the apple of her eye?
    And stand between her back, sir, and the fire,
    Holding a trencher, jesting merrily?,
    You put our page out: go, you are allow'd;
    Die when you will, a smock shall be your shroud.
    ( Love's Labour's Lost Act 5, Scene II)
Elizabeth was rather fond of taking people down and the Boyet to whom Berowne directs his comments to, has been definitively identified as the rather over zealous Sidney one of the real Queen’s military court members. The Boyet character was a high-comedy figure that has commedia roots in the capitano, or braggart soldier. So as a play Love’s Labour’s Lost is in its simplest form, fun. It’s language is rich and hard to understand sometimes, its characters are silly and pompous and the plot is a simple one. However, it asks one zany question that remains an important one even today. How does one determine the relationship between study, work, and the life of the mind and love, play, and the life of the emotions?

Zany reached its zenith as a noun describing a person from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. By the early sixteen hundreds zany had evolved to mean 'anyone who makes a laughing stock of himself to amuse others'. Further on down the line the adjectival sense of 'ludicrous' or 'mildly crazy' came about and today’s modern dictionaries define zany as 'comical in a crazy way' or 'strange, eccentric, crazy, wacky', and a ‘slavish follower’ or ‘one who acts the buffoon to amuse others.’ There are many synonyms for this word that does double duty as an adjective and a noun. In the same manner as the English servants of the same period were frequently called Andrew, could be likened to an English equivalent of a zany is a merry-andrew or even, as a Glaswegian might call someone Jimmy as an all-purpose name. Zany went on to mean not only a merry-andrew, but toady, and nut or kook too. These zany buffoons and their boisterous horseplay go all the way back to another Italian word, buffare meaning “to blow” As a comic gesture the zanies would fill out their cheeks to make people laugh. They also created the idea of boffo by praising to the skies mediocre productions as “tremendously entertaining!”

Zany quickly developed related senses of the word. First is one of disdain that suggests someone who was a hanger-on or a toady, then somebody who played the fool for the entertainment of others. Zany as a person carried on into the next centuries; Tennyson complained in 1847:

    "The printers are awful zanies, they print erasures and corrections too, and other sins they commit of the utmost inhumanity".
Since the -y ending made the word look like an adjective, it came into more common use as a modifier, until now it is rarely used as a noun.

But that’s not all folks! In modern usage, zany means a silly or fatuous person, although not without a tinge of envious admiration at any touch of originality in the performance. Today’s best know zanies follow plots along similar lines as the in Bugs Bunny cartoons; which they could simply be described as the ".....vehicle for getting Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd together so that they can act out their respective characteristics with predictable, yet highly enjoyable results." The zany was the forefather of these specialists in humor. Bugs Bunny who mocks Daffy Duck who mimics Elmer Fudd who all act out their foibles in the most entertaining and slapstick ways. Like Shakespeare’s comedy, these cartoons usually involve love and romance, mistaken identity and confusion, but in the end, all's well that ends well!


Clown History:


Etymology The science of Word Histories:

The Jester's Mask - Historical Jesters: Europe:

World Wide Words:

A Word With You:

Za"ny (?), n.; pl. Zanies (#). [It. zanni a buffoon, merry-andrew, orig. same as Giovanni John, i. e., merry John, L. Ioannes, Gr. , Heb. Yokhanan, prop., the Lord graciously gave: cf. F. zani, fr. the Italian. Cf. Jenneting.]

A merry-andrew; a buffoon.

Then write that I may follow, and so be Thy echo, thy debtor, thy foil, thy zany. Donne.

Preacher at once, and zany of thy age. Pope.


© Webster 1913.

Za"ny (?), v. t.

To mimic.


Your part is acted; give me leave at distance To zany it. Massinger.


© Webster 1913.

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