Jester, clown, comedian: Rigoletto’s title can vary. Yet no matter how his job is described, Verdi’s hero always embodies the literary archetype of the “fool,” a catch-all term for characters who provide comic relief for other people in the story—and who are typically anything but foolish. The fool has been a staple of literature and drama for centuries, and understanding this complex literary figure will deepen our appreciation of both Verdi’s opera and the deeply tragic “fool” at the story’s heart.
In a royal court, the jester held an oddly privileged position. As someone who rubbed shoulders with the court’s most powerful people, the jester was a court insider with access to all the juiciest gossip. At the same time, the jester was clearly an outsider. With their colorful costumes, jesters were easy to differentiate from everyone else at court. More subtly, the way jesters spoke—with poems, puns, and even songs—made it clear that they thought and conversed on a different level than the people around them.
The content of the jester’s speech was also unusual. Since anything a jester said could be dismissed as merely the nonsensical ramblings of a fool, jesters could speak truth to power with remarkable liberty. As long as their remarks were couched in the clothing of comedy, jesters could (at least in theory) say anything they wanted without fearing punishment. In fact, we still see this idea today at events such as the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, when comedians are invited to insult the president and powerful cabinet members to their faces.
It might seem that jesters enjoyed a plum position: Hired to make people laugh, they might have lived a life of gaiety and contentment free from the usual stressors of life in an absolutist regime. Yet the jester’s job had a decidedly darker aspect. Perpetually viewed as different, jesters were frequently subject to ridicule and spite. This was especially true if they had a deformity or disability. For instance, Rigoletto, a hunchback, is a lightning rod for not only casual contempt from the Duke’s friends (such as jeers and insults) but also the unimaginably cruel “joke” of Gilda’s kidnapping.
Rigoletto, then, is a comedian, but his life is anything but comic. Both Verdi and Hugo realized that this ironic juxtaposition of happiness and sorrow would make their story of love, hatred, and revenge all the more powerful. Verdi was right when he observed that Hugo’s play was one of the greatest dramas of the modern age. For when the clown onstage removes a smiling mask to reveal his own bitter tears, the whole audience will likely weep along with him.
Can you think of any other jesters or fools you have read about in literature (or seen in plays/movies/etc.)? Can you think of any characters that play a similar role in a story, even though they might not be a literal jester?