disability / Gender

Rigoletto: disability and the fool

Elly and I were on the train headed to the city when five half drunk middle-aged men wearing blue joined our carriage; obviously off to the rugby final, Waratah supporters hoping for the club’s first premiership. With the joy of alcohol dimming their inhibitions, it wasn’t long before they directed their attention to us, jealously admiring my chair, and then noticing Elly’s faux fur-lined jacket and my suit, “where are you going tonight?”

I hesitated, embarrassed, before responding, “to the opera house to see Rigoletto.” And then to make it clear that we weren’t actually opera-snob type people, Elly added, “it’s our first time – you’ve got to try it once.”

And so we made our way to the opera house, where we found our seats three rows from the front (a real treat, since wheelchairs are normally squashed into the back corner). The orchestra swelled and the curtains were raised on a darkened set, where a hunchback with a gamy-ed arm and twisted feet was being dressed into the outfit of a court jester – the fool Rigoletto.

The first act is set in the Duke’s Palace, where the courtiers are cavorting with half naked girls (my boys were excited to hear that the opera included some explicit views of nicely shaped pert breasts). Most lecherous of all was the Duke, who went on to seduce the daughter of Count Monterone. In the midst of this riotous debauchery, the fool’s role was to amuse the court, mostly by mockery – laughing at the courtiers as they mocked him in return. Act 1 finishes with Count Monterone being sent to the gallows after denouncing the Duke for the affair with his daughter. As he is dragged away, Monterone pronounces a curse, which the Duke laughs off but Rigoletto takes to heart. Act 2 moves to Rigoletto’s home, where we meet his beautiful daughter, Gilda. And you can guess what comes next (hint: it involves kidnap, sex, revenge, murder, and tragedy).

It was surprising good fun. The plot was engaging and camply melodramatic, and of much more importance was the transcendent voices harmonising with the orchestra (sung in Italian with a screened translation). Emma Matthews’ (Gilda) range, tone, power, and control was angelic, especially when in play with Jose Carbo’ (Rigoletto) and Diego Torre (the Duke). It was a wonderful spectacle, and I had a rollicking good time.

What I hadn’t realised, though, was that the central character was going to be disabled. It took me a while to decide whether to be annoyed or delighted by the portrayal. On the one hand, Rigoletto was a fool, a character whose disability characterised him as laughable and put him on show. Such has always been the place of disability, a fact I’ve discussed earlier in my blog about “inspiration porn.” In Rigoletto, though, the social construct of disability is unmasked, a point made explicit in the song that opens Act 2:.

O man! — O human nature!

What scoundrels dost thou make of us !

O rage! To be deformed — the buffoon to have no play !

Whether one will or not, to be obliged to laugh !

Tears, the common solace of humanity,

Are to me prohibited!

Youthful, joyous, high-born, handsome,

An imperious master gives the word —

“Amuse me, buffoon,” — and I must obey.

Perdition! How do I not despise ye all.

Ye sycophants — ye hollow courtiers !

If I am deformed, ’tis ye have made me so;

But a changed man will I now become. What scoundrels dost thou make of us.

From a disability perspective, the genius of Rigoletto is not only that the central character is disabled, but that he is neither rendered as weak or idolised as perfectly virtuous. Instead, we are given a man who plays the role expected of him (fool), who is no hero (in fact, a murderer), but who nevertheless takes a stand against the courtiers, and seeks vengeance against the Duke. He is a complex character, and the expanse of his soul is revealed in songs of power.

But while Rigoletto rises above the typical view of disability, the same can’t be said for its treatment of gender. Admittedly, the opera is a reflection of its context, but even so, it presents women as either worthless whores or saintly virgins, in each case mere playthings for lascivious courtiers and controlling fathers. It’s certainly a reminder of what feminism has accomplished.

When I mentioned these things to Elly she laughed at me. “Shane, just watch and enjoy the show.” Of course she is right. Next time I am asked by a drunk football fan what I’m doing dressed up for the evening, I won’t be embarrassed to say that I’m going to the opera.

Rigoletto: I highly recommend it (five stars).

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • Kurt
    August 3, 2014 at 9:15 pm

    Well that is pathetic Shane. Choosing the opera over the rugby final. those 5 drunk guys should have stolen your wheel chair and taken your girl when they heard you were going to the opera!

  • Curt
    August 22, 2014 at 9:03 am

    hey bro thanks for the post, you keep me thinking. “disability and the fool” eh? i can’t find it but you had another blog about taking our disablilities into heaven with us. mate never thought about that one before….You got me questioning what is and isn’t a disability, I ended up with this, the truth is we are all disabled, some phyiscally, some mentally, worse some spiritually. By our own perception we rate them more and some less, for example I now have to wear glasses, my perception thats small, your stuck in a flippin wheel chair, my perception thats big. (well anyones perception I think) However compared to what god originally designed us to be and compared to Jesus, we are all fools and very very disabled. My understanding is we will be made whole, new body new earth, not just removing physical disabilities but the spiritual ones as well. not to steal from the Army but “we will be all we can be”. yeeeew! looking forward to that! anyway bro thanks for your honesty, love the authenticity you write with, we seem to have a lot shmistian stuff out there that while they may mean well, not sure how it grows the kingdom.
    uh yeah and I’ll leave the sledging for another time. bless ya mighty man


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