Punch and Judy

Punch and Judy 1880

Punch and Judy. Children’s illustration (1880).  Public domain.

1.  Introduction

2.  The Origin of Mr Punch

3. Punchinella

4.  Analogues of Mr Punch

5.  Mammet and Myth

6.  The Story Characters

7.  The Punch and Judy Show

1.  Introduction

Punch and Judy are the prime husband and wife protagonists in numerous traditional puppet shows in Britain. Mr Punch and his wife Judy for over 2o0 years have been a popular form of public and also private entertainment. In the performances Punch treats his wife Judy and their baby boy very badly, whilst thinking he can get away with doing anything he likes. Mr Punch’s wife, as will be shown, was originally called Joan. The origin of the modern Punch and Judy show is to be found with the Italian hero and heroine Punchinella and Joan. Like his Italian forebears Mr Punch appears as a notorious boaster as well as a coward. Mr Punch has a duality and is a contradictory combination of cruelty and merriment that provokes both fear and amusement (Fowler, 2012).

Punch Cruikshank

Mr Punch (1860).  George Cruikshank.

There is no single fixed or final story concerning Punch and Judy, this is because “…the drama developed as a succession of incidents which the audience could join or leave at anytime, and much of the show was impromptu.” (Frazer, 1970). The stories and performances varied from puppeteer to puppeteer over time. In Britain Punch and Judy is a glove puppet show originating in marionette plays based on Pulchinella the impudent hunchback of the Italian commedia dell’arte (Crystal, 2004). Punch’s characteristic feature is his self-styled sense of mirth during his escapades, the origin of the term ‘pleased as Punch’. Another lasting feature is his catchphrase ‘That’s the way to do it’. Mr Punch’s other cry is that of ‘Shallabalah’ in The Old Curiosity Shop (Dickens, 1912). The expression ‘pleased as Punch’ reflects Mr Punch’s self-satisfaction with his rascally behaviour (Evans, 1978).

Punch and Judy

Punch and Judy.  A Victorian illustration.  Public domain.

2.  The Origin of Mr Punch

Mr Punch is a phenomenon with a complicated ancestry. Mr Punch has been construed as a ‘Lord of Misrule’ who “…follows a long line of low tricksters from Pan to Loki to Puck.” (Fowler, 2012). In this context he represents a manifestation of individuals derived from ancient mythology. As Pan, the god of flocks, forests and pastures in the Arcadia of ancient Greek legend, he may be a symbol of lust and fertility. As Loki, the Norse deity of strife Mr Punch may symbolise an evil satanic spirit. Mr Punch in one respect may be the mischievous Puck, himself originally a demon, the sprite of popular folklore.


Punch anD Judy show, Weymouth.  Public domain.

In England the first known appearance of Mr Punch was on the 9th of May, 1662. It was during the early years of the 17th century, in a puppet theatres in Bath and London that Mr Punch was at a pinnacle. In appearance he wore the jester’s motley of many colours with tasseled hat, resembling a clown just as clowns look like puppets (Fowler, 2012).


Court Jester.  W. M. Chase.

Mr Punch is known for his iconic appearance of hooked nose, curved and jutting chin, whilst he carries a slapstick and his contrived squeaking voice.  the length of which “…signifies his lechery, as does the stick.” (Fowler, 2012). Mr Punch adopted many comical masks and poses of which the popular image is the well known “…humpbacked , hook-nosed, large jawed mime with whom we are so familiar.” (Welsford. 1973). The puppeteer perates Mr Punch with his right hand with his antagonist always the left-handed figure. His props also included, apart from his ‘slap-stick’ for beating people, a drum, a model gallows, a string of sausages and a sheep’s bell (Fowler, 2012).

3.  Punchinella

Mr Punch is derived from the Italian clown called Punchinella who in the commedia dell’arte  posed as a dim-witted servant. Therefore the  Pulchinello, as with Pedrolino and Pierrot was a ‘fool’ or ‘clown’ seen as “…subnormal men who please by exhibition of stupidity and insensibility.” (Welsford, 1973). The Pulchinella of Italy was originally played by a live actor before he became the puppet featuring in performances of travelling showmen.


The Italian Pulchinella, who became Pulchinello in England, was ‘born’ in 1649 and is believed related to Don Juan (Fowler, 2012). Pulchinella always appeared wearing a black half-mask and white apparel, carrying a wooden spoon and sometimes macaroni. This was the stage attire of the Neapolitan clown’s pantaloons, conical hat, wide and loose blouse, with characteristic hooked nose. In temperament Pulchinella was crafty as well as being mean and tending towards viciousness. He resorts, as his primary defence, to stupidity and the pretence of not knowing what is transpiring around him.



A central character in the commedia dell’arte  Pulchinella was known as Polichinelle in France, and eventually Mr Punch from Pulchinello in England. It was by 1650 that Pulchinello had been transformed into the comical, clown-like and witty figure of the Polichinelle of France. The apparent feature of the long-hooked nose of these characters derived from the Italian word pulchino meaning ‘chicken’. Also known as Cucurucu because of his cock feather adornment. Nonetheless, the derivation of Mr Punch is uncertain, but probably from the Latin ‘pullicenus’ for chicken and thence to Pulchino the ‘cock type’ (Welsford, 1973), or Pulliceno meaning ‘turkey cock’ (Fowler, 2012).

Pulchinella’s varied performances included an old and miserly bachelor, a married man, occasionally an aged master, as well as a young valet. In common with the character Scaramouche he could be cynical and shyly reserved. His enduring trait was his ability, in common with Mr Punch, to turn the tables on his adversaries. He could appear to be either stupid or clever, the “…stupidity of Pulchinella was always for his own evil purposes.” (Welsford, 1973).

4.  Analogues of Mr Punch

The character of Mr Punch has a number of analogues apart from his Italian forebears. He is seen as the German puppet called Hanswurst or Kasperl, as well as Guignol in France and Petrushka in Russia. Mr Punch became very popular in France and Paris and by the end of the 8th century he was performing in the American colonies.


Costume design by A. Benois for Njinsky as Petrushka

The popular and comic German figure called Hanswurst appeared in impromptu comedy shows. First appearing in 1519 during the 16th and 17th centuries he was seen as a carnival character and rural buffoon at touring theatres. He appeared as a seemingly stupid, cunning and doltish fool. His demeanour was that of the merry and self-indulgent but nonetheless enterprising but cowardly individual.


The puppet Hanswurst.  Public domain.

Similar to Mr Punch, Guignol and Pulchinella is the German marionette, known in Munich in 1855, called Kasperte or Kasperle. To the Swiss he was Chaschperli and in Bavaria he was called Kaschberl. As a traditional puppet figure he was popular in Germany, Austria, and German Switzerland, with his origins from the 17th century.


The puppet Kasperle.  Public domain.

In France he was known as Ponche,  an imaginary and unhistorical to reference to Pontius Pilate (Evans, 1978), appearing as a marionette character in mystery plays. Italian clowns introduced the wily rascal Punchinella, wearing different attire and motley, to France in the 16th century. Therefore, by the middle of the 17th century he had been transformed from an actor to a marionette in which role “…he continued to appear as the very embodiment of the comic aspects of the street-life of Naples.” (Welsford, 1973).

In the Paris of the 1890’s cabarets, marionette shows and puppet plays notorious for their violence, murders, macabre and gruesome events and ghosts (Evans, 1976), were transferred from the theatre to the mobile street booths of Montmartre Crystal, 2004).. The main performer from the 18th century in these French puppet shows was Guignol. The theatre or the series of performances became known as the Grand Guignol whilst himself Guignol performed regularly in a wooden booth outside the Louvre (Fowler, 2012).


Guignol.  Public domain.

In the Italian commedia dell’arte  Scaramouche or Scaramuccia, which translates as ‘skirmish’, was black masked and rascally clown who appeared in black Spanish style attire. Scaramouche became a stock character in farces of 17th century.  In common with the clown Grimaldi he possessed affected language in combination with a sly and conceited demeanour. Similarly to Pulchinella he could be both stupid or clever and eventually became incorporated as an iconic puppet character in Punch and Judy shows.

Sxaramuccia 1880


Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837)  was an English and London born dancer, comedian and actor who expanded and took to his own an expanded role of the clown in Harlequinade. Born into a family of comic stage performers and dancers Grimaldi developed the roles of Pantaloon and Harlequin. The character that Grimaldi developed and which became a dominant feature of the London stage, especially the Theatre Royal and Drury, Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden, was known as ‘Joey the Clown’. His white faced pierrot type make-up reflected the iconic appearance of the traditional clown.


Joseph Grimaldi.  Public domain.

Harlequin or Arlequin, originated with Arleccino or the stock character called Pantaloon or Scaramouche from Italian comedy.


Arleccino.  Public domain.

Originally a demon or hobgoblin of the middle ages he became the mischievous fellow or buffoon of British and French pantomime (Evans, 1978). His name is thought derived from the Latin Herculinus meaning ‘little Hercules’.


Harlequin in his traditional garb.  Public domain.

Harlequin was a masked character wearing part-coloured tights carrying a slapstick or ‘batte’ originally a magic wand the devil used to change the scnery of the performance. His persona, which rivalled the clown or pierrot, became adapted to the later comedie-bourgeois and the opera-comique (Benet….).

Pierrot Watteau

Pierrot by Watteau.  Public domain.

5.  Mammet and Myth

Mammet was a word for a puppet or an idol during Elizabethan times. Mammet, also maumet or mommet, is derived from Anglo-Norman mauhoumet or mahumet. In other words Mohammad or Mahumet for Mahomet as a generic  designation of any false god (Evans, 1978). The word mammet is thus an obsolete reference dating from the 13th to 17th centuries. As a term for a puppet, life-less doll, or even scarecrow, it dates from the 15th century. Hence idol or false-god worship is mammetry or idolatry.

The ‘clown’ was originally Momus, the somnolent Greek god of ridicule, son of Nyx (Night), who was always railing and carping at everything. In a similar vein Harlequin was originally the mythic Greek god Hermes or his Roman counterpart Mercury. In some respects the clowns of ancient Rome, called Maccus and Bucco, appeared as fooling and greedy dolts, who could be regarded as ancestral to the later clown figure (Welsford, 1973). In one respect all puppets “…have pagan histories.” (Fowler, 2014) as their sprite, demonic and hobgoblin origins go to prove. The modern Mr Punch developed out of his pagan roots to become puppetry’s  “…paterfamilias much addicted to beating his wife and throwing his baby out of the window.” (Welsford, 1973).

6.  The Story and its Characters

The characters in a Punch and Judy show were not immutable but resembled instead those found in folk and fairy tales and soap operas, now recognised as “…certain iconic figures.” (Fowler, 2012). Traditional and original characters included the Devil or Mephisto, who is the nastiest character, and the mistress of Mr Punch called Pretty Polly. Indeed, the Devil is eventually roasted in the show on a spit. The typical cast, that incurred the wrath of Mr Punch, comprised Judy and their baby in addition to the officious constable or Parish beadle, a hungry crocodile or alligator, the Doctor whose eyes are taken out by Mr Punch, the skeleton, and Joey the Clown (who was based on the real-life clown Joseph Grimaldi).

Additional characters included Jack Ketch the generic hangman who, in the show, is tricked by Mr Punch into hanging himself. The notorious executioner and hangman Jack Ketch, who died around 1686, had become associated with Punch and Judy in the 17th century. Other occasional characters included Toby the Dog, Hector the Horse, a publican, Scaramouche, a tradesman, Death himself, along with inclusions such as Jim Crow a black servant, a minstrel, a blind man, a monkey, boxers, and a distinguished foreigner.

The original or traditional tale about Punch and Judy is where Punch kills his baby son because he cries, and beats his wife to death because she hits him. The outrageous conduct of Mr Punch results from his conflicts with Judy and the infant child. Both victims of his fit of rage are thrown out of the window and into the street (Evans, 1978). What appears as a doble murder the performance is still presented as a comedy. The humour of the violence is derived from Judy’s violence towards Mr Punch, and thus it becomes a “…morality play about the absence of morality…” (Fowler, 2012). Arrested and imprisoned by the Parish beadle Mr Punch contrives to make his escape. The story contains allegorical elements in his triumphs over adversity, over ennui or boredom and lack of interest portrayed by the dog wearing a ruff. For example the Doctor symbolises disease, death is eventually beaten to death, and the Devil himself outwitted (Evans, 1978).

7.  The Punch and Judy Show

The Punch and Judy glove puppet show developed in Britain out of the commedia dell’arte marionette shows based on the impudent hunchbacked Pulchinella in Italian comedy. It was after the Restoration that Punch arrived in England in flesh and blood and puppet form. The puppets had to be made from poplar or birch wood. In 18th century England the character of Mr Punch developed into a more obvious heartless and sensual form than either Pulchinella or Polichinelle. At this juncture Mr Punch’s wife became known as Judy rather than Joan.

The Punch and Judy glove puppet shows were typically presented within narrow and portable booths. Originally the performances took place in or outside inns and taverns, in marquees and tents at fairs, such as St Bartholomew’s and Mayfair, or in empty halls. The shows were therefore episodic by intention because “…the story is a conceptual reality, not a set text; the means of telling it therefore are always variable.” (Leach, 1985) and so a very much ‘come and go’ event.


Punch at Glasgow Green Fair (1825).  William Heath.  Public domain.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries the characteristic features of the travelling puppet booths were red and white stripes. Many were to be seen countrywide on seaside beaches. Especially gaudy were the booths typical of the late Victorian era. In the Punch and Judy shows a series of encounters with anarchic clowning, jokes, spirited comedy and songs were described by Charles Dickens as “…the street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realities of life…” (Dickens, 1849). Therefore reflecting on the fact that the only entertainment for the populace at large in the 19th century was performed in the street. The tradition of Punch and Judy still survives from its Victorian heyday open-air booths with their travelling puppeteers (Crystal, 2004).

Punch show

 Punch’s Puppet Show (1795).  Isaac Cruikshank.  Public domain.

The original Punch and Judy shows were intended for and performed as adult audiences. It was only at later date, during Victorian times, that the shows evolved into the present form of children’s entertainment.


Punch or Mayday (1829).  Benjamin Haydon.  Public domain.

Mr Punch outwits many of the story characters in a series of episodic encounters during his ensuing expoits, usually violent altercations between him and his antagonist. The plot is “…like a story compiled in a parlour game of consequences…the show should, indeed, not be regarded as a story at all but a succession of encounters.” (Speaight, 1970), defeating his opponents with anarchic vigour (Crystal, 2004).

The other side of the comedy was the tragic clown. This is exemplified in the character of the clown Tanio in Leoncavallo’s opera of 1892 called Pagliacci. The famous aria Vesti la giubba or On with the Motley traditionally sung by a pierrot garbed clown figure.


Poster for Pagliacci of 1892.


Charlie Chaplin in Limelight (1952).

In the storyline about Mr Punch, which is not a fixed set-piece of routines, he finds himself in conflict with the Devil, supernatural forces and ghosts, not to mention the forces of law and order and retribution. However, in spite of the violence of the content the performance of Punch and Judy can be seen “…as quite harmless in its influence, and as an outrageous joke which in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or as a model of, for any kind of conduct.” (Dickens, 1849).

References and Sources Consulted

Benet, W. R.  (1973).  The Reader’s Encyclopaedia.  London.

Collier, J. P.  (1929).  Punch and Judy: A Short History.  Dover Books.

Crystal, D.  (2004).  The Penguin Encyclopaedia. London.

Dickens, C.  (1849).  Letter to Mary Tylor. 6.11.1849.  The Letters of Charles Dickens, volume V (1847-1849).

Dickens, C.  (1912). The Old Curiosity Shop.  T. Nelson & Sons, London.

Evans, I.  (1978).  Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.  London.

Fowler, C.  (2012).  Bryant and May and the Memory of Blood.  Bantam, London.

Frazer, P. (1970). Punch and Judy.  B. T. Batsford Ltd.

Leach, R.  (1985).  Punch and Judy Show. University of Georgia Press.

Speaight, G.  (1955).  Punch and Judy: A History. Plays Inc.

Stead, J. p.  (1950).  Mr Punch.  Evans Brothers Ltd.

Welsford, E.  (1973). The Fool: his social and literary history.  Faber & Faber, London.


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