Opera Australia Blog

Rigoletto: One of the great hunchbacks of history

For the great artists of the past few centuries, hunchbacks were a source of endless fascination. From Shakespeare to Hugo to Verdi to Disney, there are countless representations in art.

In fact, the many representations of hunchbacks even in the centuries BC indicate they may have had a special significance in Mesoamerica.

The condition is called Kyphosis, and in its most serious form, can be very painful, debilitating and shorten the sufferer’s lifespan. However, some of history’s more famous hunchbacks were likely just suffering from scoliosis.

Richard III (Shakespeare)

King Richard III, portrait by unknown artist, hung in National Portrait Gallery

King Richard III, portrait by unknown artist, hung in National Portrait Gallery

Shakepeare’s King Richard III had a hunchback and a withered arm – a boon for physical actors. In a great surprise for historians, his skeleton was discovered in England a few years ago, and scans reveal he actually suffered from scoliosis. More on the NPR website.

Quasimodo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Victor Hugo)

“Quasimodo” painting by Antoine Wiertz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Probably the most famous (thanks to Disney), Hugo’s hunchbacked bellringer was for a long time thought to be a work of fiction. Historian Adrian Glew recently discovered references to a hunch-backed stonemason who worked on restoring the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Rigoletto (Verdi)

Giorgio Caoduro as Rigoletto in Opera Australia's production of Rigoletto at the Sydney Opera House, 2014.

Giorgio Caoduro as Rigoletto in Opera Australia’s 2014 production of Verdi’s popular opera. Photo by Branco Gaica.

The hunchback at the centre of Verdi’s popular opera was a character that gripped the composer’s imagination, the instant he read Victor Hugo’s play, Le roi s’amuse (The King Amuses Himself). In the play, the hunchbacked jester is known as Triboulet.  Verdi wrote: “The subject is grand, immense, and there is a character that is one of the greatest creations that the theatre can boast of, in any country and in all history.”

Like Hugo’s jester, Verdi’s protagonist is sadistic and grotesque, a misanthrope to society who nevertheless overflows with love for his daughter.

Igor, Frankenstein’s assistant (or the assistant of any villain)

“Igor”, from the 2008 animated film.

Immortalised in the 1931 film Frankenstein, the hunchbacked lab assistant of the villain Dr Frankenstein was actually named Fritz. But since that film, ‘Igor’ has become a stock character, the hunchbacked assistant of your garden variety villain. In 2008, John Cusack voiced an animated movie called Igor, endearing hunchbacks to the hearts of children everywhere.

Other famous hunchbacks:

  • Riff Raff, the hunchbacked handyman in the cult film The Rocky Horror Show
  • Pepin the Hunchback, eldest son of Charlemagne
  • Alexander Pope
  • Manthara from Hindu epic Ramayana
  • Charles Proteus Steinmetz, discovered the alternating current (electricity), mathematician and electrical engineer

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