What’s Shakespearean about Hamilton… or why I’m Fangirling over this musical…
OK, so it’s no news that Hamilton is a hit… but I have had a striking number of people on my social media sites talk about how the show is compelling in a way they haven’t experienced in a musical since high school or before. This seems to be especially prevalent in my circle of grad school friends and colleagues and I am right there with them so I wanted to write a little post about some of the reasons I think we might love it- because these are a few ways I see Hamilton as quite Shakespearean. (Disclaimer: potential SPOILERS ahead and I feel like I need to make it very clear that I have not been one of the privileged to see Hamilton– only listened intently to the cast recording since NPR debuted it. It’s ok though, I haven’t seen all of the Shakespeare canon in performance either)
1. The words are of primary importance. The lyrics are so specific, so rhythmic in a way that someone saying them out of time could make me cringe as much as any poorly scanned Shakespearean line and that’s to say nothing of the rhymes you will find. The vocabulary is smart and in the midst of arguing about whether or not Shakespeare is too hard for an average audience to understand it’s refreshing to have complex, beautiful words featured in such a prominent way. It’s consuming. You will miss so much if you expect to listen to it passively. Just like Shakespeare. And if this continues to open up hip hop as a parallel/viable means of teaching verse work to connect Shakespeare to the arts we have today then all the better.
2. It’s a history play that makes me want to go learn so much more about history, but you don’t need to know the history to love it. OK, so I am OBSESSED with the history plays (especially the Henry 6s) and they are RARELY done compared to many of Shakespeare’s works which is a shame. I get it, they require larger casts, the scale of the stories are sweeping and span years- so does Hamilton. They humanize historical figures in a way many history classes forget, they choose a perspective and bias and own it and leave you to go research the liberties and loopholes- so does Hamilton. IT doesn’t mock history although there may be tongue and check references to the past, it looks at it with a sense of genuine interest in the human condition. I have been longing for a history play that relates to events in my own country since I started loving the English history plays and I hope this sparks many other high quality history plays about America just as I hope it sparks an interest in doing the Shakespearean tetralogies instead of MAYBE just Richard III and Henry V if you’re lucky… (PS: if you know of other plays that already fit that bill and just haven’t gotten the same amount of press PLEASE send them my way!)
3. It’s really damn quotable odds are good that someday in the near future you will hear or even quote one of the quippy lines in Hamilton without even noticing it (young, scrappy, and hungry anyone?) just as even those “afraid” of Shakespeare end up using an awful lot the sayings he’s credited with penning…
4. DOUBLING: Doubling is where one actor plays multiple roles in a production. Shakespeare’s company used doubling and there are so many fascinating things to be done in productions when you double characters and explore how one role echoes in another. Lin Manuel Miranda has written doubling into his masterpiece and that includes the same kind of marvelous echoes such as the French Lafayette being played by the same actor who plays Thomas Jefferson-ambassador to France who pleads with Washington to help Lafayette later in the play. There’s also a lovely doubling as far as who dies for Hamilton- as lovely to me as the Fool/Cordelia doubling in Lear.
5. There aren’t many featured female roles, but damn are they good ones.
It’s a history play so it’s easy for the lion’s share of the lines to go to a bunch of dudes, but just as Shakespeare’s histories give us the kick ass roles of Queen Margaret, Lady Percy, and Lady Anne… The Schulyer sisters are certainly roles to covet. They are gorgeously written, intelligent, ACTIVE women. Which brings me to one aspect where I think Hamilton beats Shakespeare’s plays history and otherwise: in many of Shakespeare’s plays the women slowly fade to the background at the end. Either they are murdered or commit suicide in the histories/tragedies or they are married off and suddenly become silent in most of the comedies. The first time I listened to the soundtrack of Hamilton there was a single line in the final song that made me weep until the end of the track. Eliza, Hamilton’s wife has a line “I put myself back in the narrative” and the flood gates just opened for me. In many ways Eliza gets the final word (though the actual final word is choral) as she not only actively continues to help our nation until the end of her days long after Alexander dies, she works hard to become the storyteller. It’s part of what I want my work in the theatre to do- allow women to be as much a part of the narrative of our stories as men have been for centuries. It’s gorgeous. It’s something I like to imagine Shakespeare would be impressed with and delighted by given the direction he was going in some of his late romance plays but of course that is purely imagination and speculation.
So all that to say- if you haven’t jumped on the Hamilton bandwagon- DO. and if you haven’t seen Shakespeare’s take on the War of the Roses- start mentioning it to your local theatre companies because history plays ROCK.