Although more has been written on the commedia dell'arte than on any other type of theatre, many fundamental questions remain unanswered, and opinions concerning its origins, early history, and definition are surprisingly divergent. It is evident that the term ‘commedia dell'arte’ would become virtually meaningless if it were stretched to include, without qualification, all manifestations of theatrical entertainment which feature characters representing, or deriving from, its stock types; or the full range of theatrical practises offered by the very versatile early comici d'arte, although all are of concern to commedia studies. The commedia dell'arte itself may be broadly defined as a type of professional dramatic performance associated with distinctive stock characters, that arose in mid-sixteenth-century Italy, whose evolving cultural derivatives have spread throughout Europe. Its stock types drew on a wide variety of sources, including mystery and mummers’ plays, carnival masks, street theatre and court entertainment; popular farces and erudite comedy; and have transcended the theatre to play key roles in music, dance, art and literature. The extreme complexity of its continuing interchanges with other cultural phenomena makes precise definition of the commedia dell'arte elusive, and the term itself also resists easy definition because it was coined only in mid-eighteenth-century Paris, two centuries after the type of theatre with which it is associated first came into being.