xxx Reviving Ophelia

Linking Verdi’s Gilda of Rigoletto and Shakespeare’s Ophelia of Hamlet

Ophelia, John Everett Millais, 1851-52

On Le roi s’amuse is the greatest plot,
and perhaps the greatest drama of modern times.
Triboulet is a creation worthy of Shakespeare!!

—In a letter to Cammarano of 1848, Verdi had expressed a wish
to be able to blend the comic and the terrible ‘in Shakespeare’s manner.’ 2


By the end of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s cinematic version of Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, we witness the beautiful Gilda floating in a boat on the River Mincio at her father’s side. Gilda begs for forgiveness and expresses confidence in her decision to die for her love, the Duke of Mantua, as she breathes her last breaths. Her father holds her expiring body in utter shock, distraught to see death come to the only person in his life, the daughter for whom he has fought to protect throughout the opera. This is not the first time we see a young woman floating into a tragic, watery death as a result of conflicting emotions between her patriarch and love interest. About 250 years before Verdi completed Rigoletto, Shakespeare’s Hamlet took to the stage, arguably his most famous and densely analyzed play. Hamlet’s teetering sanity and bipolar antics distract from the sorry plight of his lover, Ophelia. Torn between her family’s expectations and her love for Hamlet, Ophelia strives to please both. Her father ends up murdered by the hand of Hamlet, who in short time rejects her crudely. At this point Ophelia is understood to have gone insane. She meets an untimely end in the waters of a stream where she drowns herself amongst the weeds, flowers, and other foliage she had often picked as gifts for Hamlet. The cruelty of Hamlet ultimately drives Ophelia to suicide, though it’s difficult to ignore her father’s death in this decision: there were no men left for Ophelia to please.

Rigoletto offers a similar love triangle—the young woman caught between her devotion to her father and her love for another man—with a crucial difference: Gilda’s father is not killed. In fact, he is the opera’s protagonist and has an immense presence in Gilda’s life. Its plot revolves around his intention to kill the man who woos his daughter, just as Polonius, Ophelia’s father, plots against Hamlet. ‘You are my life! / Without you, what love would I have on earth?’ Rigoletto tells Gilda [I.ii]. (Weaver, 21) Rigoletto’s life without his daughter amounts to little that is authentic or even tangible. As Julian Budden notes in a summary of Rigoletto, “Triboulet [equivalent of Rigoletto in Victor Hugo’s original text] leads a double life as jester to a licentious monarch and as protective father to a young daughter. The first spurs on to vice and debauchery, the second he keeps in cloistered seclusion.” (Budden, 214) As the jester, he can disguise himself from the ridicule he receives as a hunchback by deflecting the laughter to another source, and the pain of losing his wife is also concealed under this guise. Understandable actions—perhaps normal, even, as far as psychology goes. But Rigoletto hides his profession from his daughter, hence the “double life.” In fact, he shares nothing with her except remembrances of her mother, which is apparent when she asks, ‘What is your name?’ [I.ii]. (Weaver, 21) She pleas to leave home and see the city, and Rigoletto refuses without much of an explanation. This over-protection of Gilda is actually a partial attempt to shield her from the knowledge of his profession.

There is much shame in Rigoletto: shame for his physical deformity as a hunchback, shame for his grief over his wife, shame for his profession as a jester. Apparently Rigoletto’s wife was apparently the only person who ever loved him despite his deformity. Monterone’s curse upon the jester (‘And you serpent, / Who laugh at a father’s grief / Be cursed!’ [I.i]) forces Rigoletto to take life seriously for a moment, something he usually avoids while playing the part of a jester. (Weaver,17) ‘Oh, fury! To be deformed! / Oh, fury! To be a buffoon! / Not allowed, not able to do anything but laugh!… / Every man’s release—weeping—is denied me,’ he laments [I.ii]. (Weaver, 19) Later at home with Gilda, he is allowed to express his sorrow and does so in “increasingly agonized reminisces of Gilda’s mother” which “are answered by his daughter’s broken semiquavers and sobbing appoggiaturas.” (Parker, 1328) He explains to Gilda that her mother loved him out of “compassion” and “felt pity for my sufferings,” [I.ii]. (Weaver, 23) Thus Rigoletto sets himself up to appear as a pathetic figure. He only appears happy when working, “appears” being the key word: his vocation exists only as an escape from his grief for his wife. His daughter is the only person in his life and he is not even honest with her. His parenting skills are virtually nonexistent. His relationship with his daughter is fueled by grief, shame and manipulation. Whatever positive emotions he attempts to experience with her are subsequently selfish and misleading, and both he and his daughter suffer as a result. Were he just a clown escaping his grief, or just an over-protective father worried about his daughter’s well-being, he would no longer be Rigoletto; he is a product of these extremes, which are wholly dependent upon one another to exist.

Rigoletto has not prepared Gilda well enough to know how to think or act in situations outside her own home. Thus it is no wonder that she so easily falls for the Duke. Not only has she been waiting for excitement her entire life, she also doesn’t know what love really is. Rigoletto makes sure of this. When leaving her to the care of Giovanna, he instructs ‘…watch over this flower / Watch carefully, that her innocence / Never be stained [I.ii]. (Weaver, 23) He is ultimately choosing to preserve his daughter’s state of mind, however naïve and ignorant it is. So determined he is to preserve her purity—both in chasteness of body and mind—that he resorts to murder. Rather than resolving the issue through discussion with his daughter, he ignores her pleas for forgiveness and instead chooses to eliminate the threat that lures her from him. ‘Oh father, what fierce joy / I see flashing in your eyes!’ Gilda exclaims as her father broods over his vengeance [II]. ‘Forgive him! And a voice of forgiveness / will come for us too from heaven,’ she continues [II]. (Weaver, 43) It is here that we witness the dark side of Rigoletto, shades of his character that involve more intense feelings for his daughter than she is capable of reciprocating.

When Gilda is kidnapped by members of the Duke’s court, Rigoletto responds as though his very own life is at stake. “The man who defends his daughter’s honour / Fears nothing more on earth” [Act 2, iv]. Rigoletto fears for his daughter’s life more than his own. After obsessively holding her captive the entirety of her life, she is his life. His brooding behavior frightens her, and now more than ever she has reason to escape his grasp; and yet, though she conceals her love for the Duke at first, she is so thoroughly overwhelmed by her father’s power that she can’t help but come clean to him. She is also so thoroughly under the Duke’s power that she is willing to do anything in order to be with him. She devotes herself entirely to the Duke, much in the manner of her father to herself. Her life, previously limited to the boundaries of her home, now opens up to the single possibility of love that the Duke offers—not unlike the focus of love Rigoletto casts on her. “Like father, like daughter.” While the threat of the Duke sets the curse of Monterone in action, it is important to recognize that the curse has loomed since the beginning of the opera—before the Duke has in fact attempted to seduce Gilda. Budden summarizes the effect Verdi creates with the curse:

The curse symbolizes the retribution that will fall on Triboulet [Rigoletto] for his vicious behavior. Verdi sums it up as a pregnant motif that dominates the prelude. It is not strictly the curse but Rigoletto’s recollection of it (‘Quel vecchio maledivami’) and it falls over much of the first act like a shadow. (214)

Even before any other man attempts to lure his daughter away, Rigoletto’s failure as a parent already spells disaster for his coveted daughter. Quite simply: he shelters her too much, and out of his own insecurity, investing his happiness and existence in the knowledge that she is safe and under his control. More complex analyses of their relationship take a hint from the moment in the opera when the courtiers confuse Gilda as the mistress of Rigoletto in Act I, Scene 2. Robert Donington describes the implications of this moment as they explain the meaning of the curse:

For when we learn that Rigoletto keeps his daughter Gilda in such close confine that the courtiers take her for his mistress, it occurs to me quite probable in his unconscious he wishes that she were… Old Monterone’s curse could then be seen as constellating outwardly the doubts, the suspicions, and the hallucinations with which Rigoletto is by now being assailed inwardly: in terms of psychology, a persecutory fantasy; in terms of theatre, a melodramatic masterpiece. (85)

With the help of Donington’s observation, we can understand Rigoletto’s path from insecure hunchback to grieving widow, from court jester to overprotective father, and from all of these identities, to the plotting murderer he becomes in the end. Whether or not the incest Donington suggests exists, even if limited to the subconscious, Rigoletto at least channels his love for his wife onto his daughter, if only because his deeply-rooted shame and self-hatred requires that someone exist in his life to love him. That Gilda is technically his daughter and too young and beautiful to stay with him forever requires that she be held captive in order to satisfy his ego’s need.

While Polonius shelters Ophelia, he does so to no greater extent than most fathers. He also has a son, and the existence of a second child prevents him from devoting all his attention to his daughter. Ophelia experiences the natural pull of a patriarch; Gilda suffers from the obsessive captivity of her respective patriarch. While we see Gilda ask for forgiveness from her father after she confesses her feelings for the Duke, and also as she speaks her last words before dying in her father’s arms, we never witness her express actual emotion for her father. She clearly does not want to displease him, though she makes apparent no intentions to actively please him. Her love, if we want to call it that, centers only upon the Duke of Mantua. The triangle exists in Rigoletto only because Rigoletto perpetuates it, but Gilda doesn’t reciprocate any feelings for him, genuine or obsessive. It is after the loss of her love interest and death of her father that Ophelia drowns herself in the stream. Gilda dies in her fathers’ arms; Ophelia dies alone, though both women might as well be understood to experience a solitary death. Were someone living on earth who desired them, and who they equally desired, they would not take their lives. Understanding why Gilda does not see her father as a reason to stay alive is crucial to understanding his curse. He is cursed for loving too much, and for all the wrong reasons. While on the one hand, Gilda is seemingly incapable of handling the emotion of love—her suicide rings loudly of the rash decision-making of immature, pubescent romance—we must consider that, on the other hand, had she experienced a more pure and unselfish love from her father, an unconditional instead of conditional, perhaps she might have learned to love him in return. Perhaps she also might not have fallen for the Duke. And perhaps had she fallen for the Duke, and had it gone awry in some other way, she might have survived.

Ophelia is labeled as a static character—her one shot at human growth arrives when she is rejected by Hamlet, and she withers. Contrarily, Gilda can be understood as more dynamic, which Budden identifies through the shift in the maturity of her musical parts. At first Gilda is understood to project precisely what her father has preserved: innocence and youth. Yet by the end, ” ‘Tutte le feste al tempio’ is unmistakingably that of one who has woken from dreams to reality,” Budden writes. “…the Gilda who sacrifices herself for her love and who dominates the symmetrical terzettivio that crowns the height of the storm is no mere girl.” (218) Budden believes that Gilda comes of age during the course of the opera. Thus we see that the curse of Rigoletto is not simply the loss, via death, of his daughter; rather, it is the painful experience of watching his daughter grow up and grow out of her dependence on him. Her death is the symbolic ending of her childhood. While in the role of jester, Rigoletto tries to forget about his wife and his sorrow. It seems he also forgets about the daughter he locks up at home, the daughter who deserves the chance to grow, and to live.



1 Verdi, Giuseppe. Quoted in Phillips-Matz, Mary Jane. Verdi, A Biography, p. 265. Oxford University Press, New York: 1996.

2 Budden, Julian. The Dent Matter Musicians: Verdi, p.215. London: The Orion Publishing Group, 1993.

3 “Ophelia.” Sir John Everett Millais, 1851. Online.


Budden, Julian. The Dent Matter Musicians: Verdi. London: The Orion Publishing Group, 1993.

Parker, Roger. “Rigoletto.” The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Vol. 3. Hong Kong: China Translation and Printing Services Limited, 1998.

Phillips-Matz, Mary Jane. Verdi, A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press,1996.

Donington, Robert. Opera and its Symbols. U.S.: Yale University Press, 1990.

Verdi, Giuseppe. “Rigoletto.” Translated by William Weaver. Seven Verdi Librettos. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975.