Even though I already wrote a long post about Hamilton as an American tragedy, it seems I still have thoughts about about the musical that need teasing out in writing. Thoughts about comparing Lin Manuel Miranda to Shakespeare and thoughts about the kind of mythologizing Miranda is doing and about Miranda as a bridge builder. And the scary thing is I’m not sure I’m done pondering this play.
Lin Manuel Miranda, another Shakespeare?
In the recent PBS documentary about Hamilton Oskar Eustis, artistic director at The Public Theater where Hamilton debuted, unapologetically compares Lin Manuel Miranda to Shakespeare:
I have more than once compared Lin to Shakespeare. And I do it without blushing or apologizing. Lin in Hamilton is doing exactly what Shakespeare did in his history plays. He’s taking the voice of the common people, elevating it to poetry and by elevating it to poetry— in Shakespeare’s case iambic pentameter, in Lin’s case, rap, rhyme, hip hop, r&b— and by elevating it to poetry, ennobling the people themselves. He is bringing out what is noble about the common tongue. And that is something that nobody has done as effectively as Lin since Shakespeare.
There’s a bit of hyperbole in this claim, of course, but I think there’s truth there, too. Hamilton is rather like one of Shakespeare’s history plays, including the way Shakespeare uses his plays to comment on his contemporary political situation. Also, Shakespeare and Miranda have a broad appeal that reaches across class lines to speak to groundlings and royalty alike. But for all there’s a valid comparison to be made, I’m not sure Eustis has really thought this through. It sounds good as a sound bite, but when I try to figure out how it fits together, I feel like I’m putting together a puzzle that’s missing some pieces, or, rather, Eustis is.
Ennobling the People through Poetry?
Eustis’ claim that Miranda is turning the voice of the common people into poetry is somewhat muddled. Yes, Miranda uses the vernacular of 21st century America for the voices of his historical characters. His characters’ diction is distinctly 21st century, distinctly urban. They speak in a hip hop vernacular. Hamilton’s characters talk like us, just as Shakespeare gave voice to characters who speak in a broad range of voices, commoners and tradesmen as well as the noble and landed classes. “Yo!” is their favorite interjection. (See the funny online quiz where you try to identify the character and song from the single syllable, “Yo.”) Their conversation is peppered with slang and with expletives. Off the top of my head a few examples of the language: ”we’re in the shit now” and “I’m a trust fund baby,” and “got it made in the shade.” And, well, yes, they speak in verse. Not Shakespearian verse, but as Eustis says, rap, r&b, pop songs, etc. Whereas Shakespeare’s dialogue is mostly in iambic pentameter, the meter of spoken English, Miranda’s characters are literally singing. But all rap music turns the voice of the common people into poetry, doesn’t it?
What point is Eustis making? Yes, Miranda uses the vernacular and puts it into verse, but so does every rap artist and so do Broadway musicals. Rap already is poetry, all songs lyrics are poetry, so how can Miranda elevate it to poetry? Unless by “poetry” Eustis means something other than metric verse. Then, what’s different and elevated about Miranda’s work in Hamilton? It’s true that Miranda is an innovator. Broadway has absorbed every other type of popular music but has not yet embraced rap. But is putting rap into a Broadway musical inherently ennobling it? If putting the vernacular to verse/music were ennobling, then every rap artist is Shakespearian. If putting pop songs into musicals is ennobling, then why aren’t all musicals compared to Shakespeare?
What exactly is being ennobled and how? Is it the form or the content? Shakespeare’s verse is ennobling because of the formal meter (and because of the gorgeous playful richness of the language), the iambic pentameter, but Miranda’s rap form is the form of the street itself, he’s already using the vernacular for his verse structure. So it must be not the form of the song but the form of the play? Is it the heroic themes of the play that ennoble the vernacular rap form? Is it the fact that the play is a tragedy?
I guess you’re asking what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare. Is it the stories? They’re most of them recycled and cobbled together from other sources. Is it the verse? In Shakespeare’s day all plays were written in verse. What makes Shakespeare different is his virtuosity. But that’s not the argument Eustis seems to be making, that Miranda is a virtuoso.
I’d say that if anything Miranda is actually elevating rap, showing that it can integrate with other established musical forms. Hamilton demonstrates that rap and hiphop can be used to tell a different kind of story than the typical story about the 21st century urban experience of the rapper. What’s surprising about Hamilton is that he’s telling the story of the great heroic figures of the American founding myth using hip hop. It’s precisely that the language isn’t what we think of as Shakespearian. Washington is rapping. Jefferson is rapping. The fundamental debates of our founding fathers are being presented as a rap battle. That’s what’s surprising and novel in Hamilton. But really what Miranda is doing is showing us that there’s a similarity between the lives described in hip hop and those heroic lives of the Founding Fathers. So perhaps you can say that he’s ennobling the voices of the common people if you posit that hip hop is the musical vernacular and that he’s elevating and ennobling it by using it to tell the kinds of stories that Shakespeare tells. By using it for a tragical history play whose form is like MacBeth or Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra.
Hamilton, the American Myth
More, though, Miranda isn’t just telling a story of the American founding fathers, he’s retelling the American Myth itself, rewriting it just as surely as Virgil’s Aeneid retells the myth of the founding of Rome. Hamilton is America’s origin story, not just re-envisioned and re-tailored for contemporary sensibilities, but one that addresses a particular crisis in contemporary American culture. We are a people who distrust our own founding myth, who feel disconnected with the George Washington we learned about in elementary school who could never tell a lie about the cherry tree. The Founding Fathers are excoriated in the press for their hypocrisy. Our current First Lady, the first black First Lady, complains that the White House was built by slaves. It is not hyperbole to say we are having a crisis of identity just as profound as the crisis faced by the English under both Elizabeth Tudor and James Stewart. And just as Shakespeare responded to that crisis by turning to English history and retelling the stories of British monarchs, creating a new narrative of Englishness, Miranda is creating a new narrative of Americanness, a myth of Americanness, but he’s not creating it out of whole cloth. He’s doing something both old and new, making our own history relevant and accessible to us and making it into something bigger than Hamilton and Eliza, bigger than Washington and Jefferson, bigger than America itself, something more universal.
And what is Miranda’s American myth? It has elements of both tragedy and comedy. It’s partly about America as a land of immigrants, partly about America as a nation founded on idealism, and partly about America as a nation of paradox: founded in bloodshed, founded with an ideal of equality enshrined alongside a pragmatic inequality. A nation with a tragic, horrific flaw, but one that might not be fatal. A nation of hope and a nation where we have the freedom to rewrite the story, to put ourselves into the narrative, to become our better selves, and to find forgiveness and reconciliation for past wrongs, even the most terrible betrayals.
Miranda famously tells a story that combines both his characteristic humility but also something of this sense of mythic ambition. He describes an incident where a fan accosted him on the street:
*Lady rolls down her car window at 181st street*
"congrats on HAMLET!"
Me: "I WISH I wrote Hamlet!"
Lady: "Yay HAMLET!"
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) February 19, 2015
No, Hamilton is not Hamlet. If you’re searching for an equivalent of the famous To be or not to be soliloquy, you aren’t going to find it in any of the songs. Hamilton’s final soliloquy is powerful, but it’s not in the same ballpark, as I’m sure Miranda himself would admit. Miranda is a great playwright, but as skillful as his wordplay is and as eloquent as his characters can be, he’s not Shakespeare and his verse lacks the grandeur and virtuosity of Shakespeare. But I don’t like to dwell on the comparison in that negative light because I think Miranda is, in a way, for us, something better than Shakespeare, he’s an American poet working in our 21st century forms to tell our story. He’s our bard and I hope he continues to live up to his promise. I hope Hamilton isn’t the height of his genius but only the beginning.
Love Doesn’t Discriminate
Another thought, not really an afterthought, but it doesn’t fit in with the flow of what I’ve already written and I don’t feel like rewriting to make it fit, even though it seems like the last paragraph was a conclusion. Another way in which Miranda is like Shakespeare is that Shakespeare wrote for the groundling and for royalty. His plays might be considered highbrow today, but in his time they were for rich and poor alike, for the university educated and for those with little or no education. They were for the nobility and for the peasants and shopkeepers and butchers and bakers. And there’s no indication that he changed a thing in any of the plays to accommodate his various audiences. The Queen heard the same play as the groundlings. In this way Shakespeare is the ultimate bridge builder. He’s a poet for the common man even more so than Whitman or Frost. And yet his plays have been the subject of countless doctoral dissertations. He’s also the poet of the intelligentsia.
Likewise, Miranda’s plays build bridges, two way bridges between “high” and “low” culture, making each accessible to the other. Yes, his play ennobles rap and hip hop, gives them a place at the table. But also he makes Broadway and Shakespeare and history accessible to the masses by creating a cultural fusion that everyone enjoys. He writes about the founding fathers in the language of the streets and makes those stories accessible to those who have previously felt disenfranchised, accessible to those who don’t normally pay attention to Broadway. Hamilton’s fusion unites rich and poor, intellectual and man on the street, and reaches to people on the both ends of the political spectrum. No one is excluded from the world of Hamilton based on education or class or race or political affiliation. (Paradoxical in a play that focuses so strongly on politics.) And that openness feels increasingly rare in American culture today where everything seems to be politicized and polarized.
And one of the interesting things about Hamilton is that it demonizes no one. Even the villains are sympathetic. Burr is almost a second protagonist. King George is a comic figure, though his songs have very dark undertones. And even Jefferson is lovable, affable, we cheer his appearance on stage even when we disagree with what he’s saying and doing. Burr sings, “Love doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.” What he means is that both saints and sinners fall in love, but another reading is that both saints and sinners are worthy of being loved. Eliza loves Alexander, who is manifestly not a saint. She loves him and forgives him even in his unloveliness. So God, who is love, loves all, sinners and saints alike. And so we are also invited to love not only Hamilton himself, but Burr, and Jefferson, and even King George. Love them not because they are saints but because they are all too human.