The Character of Mr Punch is descended from the Italian clown Pulcinella who featured in the Commedia Dell' Arte medieval tradition of the 15th Century. Players toured Europe and Samuel Pepys recalls seeing such a troupe in Covent Garden in 1662 during the festivities surrounding the wedding of Charles II. This date is considered 'Punch's Birthday' and Mr Punch first become popular in London under the name Punchinello before it was shortened to the Mr Punch we know today.
This new irreverent wooden star was taken up by British puppeteers for his moral story could be used to comment on the politics of the day and so he traveled around the country for the next century. By 1800, he had become a hand puppet in the little street corner stages used by travelling puppeteers and known as Puppet Booths, new characters were added, he gained a wife, called Judy and began taking on British theatrical traditions.
This transformation from an adult morality play with plenty of contemporary social comment and satire to the colourful knockabout 'Punch and Judy Show' we know today performed using Glove Puppets was brought about as Punch absorbed the comedy of the Slapstick theatrical tradition.
As performing in towns became more difficult Mr Punch travelled on the newly arrived railways to the seaside where he entertained the great British working class as they took their holidays - this is the image of the seaside Punch and Judy Show which we are most familiar with. So the Italian Pulcinella was transformed into childrens entertainment, a role in which Punch saw out the end of the 19th Century and the entire 20th Century. Mr Punch with his Punch & Judy Show is still going strong over 300 years later.
"Pinocchio is rewarded for his docility by being turned into a little boy. True comedy makes the child in us want to turn into Mr. Punch" John Kerrigan, English Comedy. Cambridge University Press 1994"
Mr Punch a Medieval Hero in a Victorian Morality Play
The tale of Punch and Judy varies from puppeteer to puppeteer and has changed with history but the Punch and Judy Show we know today although touched by victorian morality retains a medieval vibrancy and energy as Punch is both villain and hero of the day.
Told as a straight morality tale without the comedy and force of Mr Punch's character, Punch and Judy is a grim story, - but that is true of most traditional tales. The joy of Punch and Judy is that children will immediately grasp and loudly tell Mr Punch when he has been 'bad' but will recognise and relate to Mr Punch, as they know themselves how hard it is to always be 'good'. The comedy of Punch and Judy lies in Mr Punch's unrepentant behaviour, boundless energy and disregard for figures of authority as Punch deals with each new situation and his overarching belief that he is really a 'good boy' when we all know Mr Punch is not.