“Yay Hamlet!”: Hamilton as Shakespearean Tragedy

Hamilton! Awesome! Wow!

Yeah, yeah, yeah, five months later (“…I’m writing a letter nightly”) and my love for Hamilton has not abated. Rather, like a happy marriage or a fine wine, it has matured into something even richer and more complex.

And so it took a new arrival to the private Hamilton chat group I’m in (you guys should see the Hamilton stream-of-consciousness-commentary I don’t post to Facebook) who said today, with all the wonder of Eternal September:

I can’t wrap my mind around the genius of this album. It’s perfection. Every single song. How did he do it? I don’t remember the last time something knocked me over like this.

to get me really thinking again. And? She’s right. Genius is an easy word to throw around. And certainly the breathlessness and hype over this show is enough to make any thinking person sit back and say, enough already! But there is something real here. Like this: I don’t know a single person who has seriously spent time with the show who can choose a favorite song.  And more telling, I think, is not that they have “more than one favorite” or that they “like the whole thing,” but that in fact on repeated listening, and depending on what’s happening in the world and in the listener’s own life, different songs resonate from week to week. It seems like there is always something new to hear, a quotable quote for the week. The play is not just the thing, but a living thing.

And–I swear to God this isn’t just me–once you really know the show, you can’t help but hear and speak in shades of Hamilton at all times. Everyday phrases–wait for it, sometimes that’s how it goes, you are the worst–speak volumes. Following the cadence of someone’s conversation–about anything at all–will suddenly lead you stumbling dactyl over tetrameter into I’M in the CABinet I am comPLICit in WATCHing him TAKing that POWer and KISSin’ it. You find yourself waking up with lines repeating in your mind–and the thing is that you don’t mind.

In just over a year, Hamilton has both captured the imagination and infected the minds and language of its fans (admittedly a small group, with respect to the whole world, but a large one I would argue, compared to the usual audience of a one-year-old musical). It’s changed the way we think and speak. This is beyond catchy, beyond trendy (“our odds are beyond scary”)–there is something monumental here. But what?

Hm, let’s see: Hamilton is an old story, lifted from the chronicles of our nation, re-packaged and re-told in a contemporary voice for a contemporary audience. It’s almost entirely in verse and loaded with every shade of allusion. It is the tale of a promising and successful man raised high and laid low by his ambition. Or his fate. Or both.

In other words: Hamilton evokes a Shakespearean tragedy and that, I think, is why it feels both familiar and fresh, why it resonates in such a significant way.

Oddly enough, though, amid 8 million gushing think pieces,I haven’t seen much about Hamilton and Shakespeare at all–except of course the infamous Lin-Manuel Miranda tweet that spawned the hashtag #yayhamlet.

So, why not? Is it because it’s too obvious? Like, Hamilton tells us this himself in Act II when he refers to “another Scottish tragedy”? Or because drawing such a comparison sounds so over-the-top–Lin-Manuel is Shakespeare now, heavens preserve us, no, that’s not what I said–that no internet critic wants to imagine the backlash? Or because we’re distracted by the fact that Hamilton is a musical, which tend to play by different rules?

I dunno. But in any case, it was a new idea to me, on my evening commute home tonight. So, just for fun, let’s see how Hamilton (and by Hamilton I mean the cast recording, of course, since that’s what I have access to, though I know there are a few important moments missing from it) maps onto Freytag’s five-act structure of a Shakspearean tragedy. Of course, one could break the acts anywhere one wanted, and one could probably tell any number of compelling narratives about why one did so. (Do it! In the comments!) This is just one way of doing it. Here goes:

Act I: Exposition

Alexander Hamilton – Wait for It 

Welp, I guess you could say that the opening number “introduces important background information to the audience; for example, information about the setting, events occurring before the main plot, characters’ back stories, etc.” In Act I, we meet all of the major characters from the first half of the show and embark on the hopeful beginnings of all the plot lines: revolution! friendship! love! success! more beer!  Songs like “Right Hand Man,” “Helpless,” “Satisfied,” “Wait for It,” and the “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory…” bit of “My Shot” invite us to the inner mindset of all of our main characters. The action is rising. Everyone is on the up and up (again). And then–Burr tells us to chill out and “wait for it” while, Iago-like, he tells us his plan. He’s “lying in wait,” guys, which I just discovered is actually a legal term that elevates a killing to first degree murder. Chew on that.

Act II: Rising Action

Stay Alive – Non-Stop

This whole act is literally about “how to account for his rise to the top.” As an officer, as a father, as a lawyer, as a politician. Climbing, climbing, climbing. Step one: don’t die. Step two: don’t stop. Interestingly, “That would be enough” lands right in the middle of this act. But it isn’t enough–nothing ever is (not even for Eliza–notice how over the course of the song, she’s asking for more and more and more)! And that is precisely the point.

Act III: Climax

What’d I Miss – One Last Time

The climax is the turning point, which changes the protagonist’s fate.” Mr. Jefferson, welcome home.

OK, the fact that the very middle of my Act III actually consists of Hamilton and Maria Reynolds moaning “YESSSSSS!” seems just a a little too on the nose. Is Lin-Manuel actually trolling us? Climax indeed.

The protagonist’s weaknesses are revealed: “Ambition is my folly” “Your pride will be the death of us all!”

In Act I, Hamilton makes promises to his wife (“I swear to God you’ll never feel so helpless”) and his son (“I swear that I’ll be around for you”) and in Act III, we see him breaking these.

And, as Washington steps away from the office of the President, Hamilton is left exposed to his enemies.

Act IV: Falling Action

I Know Him – Stay Alive [reprise]

Falling action–i.e., all hell breaks loose. The act starts with arguably the funniest song in the show (Oh my God, you guys, I just realized that the King is the Fool. That is stunning.), peaks with the most chilling, and leaves us in a crumpled heap on the floor. John Adams is president? The Reynolds pamphlet? A broken marriage? And a murdered child? Shitstorm.

Hamilton’s climb and his plummet are framed by pleas to “Stay Alive”

Act V: Denoument

Quiet Uptown – Who Tells Your Story

We wrap up our loose ends. Peace is restored, but our hero meets his seemingly inevitable fate–on the very same dueling ground where his son died (how did that even happen in real life? I mean, I guess it was the closest dueling ground to their house).

And, like Horatio, Eliza shall have also cause to speak and tell our story.

So, there you have it. What do you think? Would you break the acts down differently?

Look, I’m not saying Lin-Manuel is Shakespeare. I’m saying that he deeply understands Shakespeare, and that, just as he does with rap and musical theater, he is deliberately invoking the conventions of that genre in order to connect with our most fundamental understanding (in western culture anyway) of what makes a hero, what makes a tragedy, what makes a story, and what makes history. Using this structure elevates the show and lends it gravitas. It implies that Alexander Hamilton, as a tragic figure, is in company with Macbeth, Othello, and Hamlet. It’s carefully crafted to hit us hard, just like Aristotle said it would. But unlike rap and musical theater, I haven’t seen anyone talking about it!

So, why does this matter? Well, I think it helps to explain why the show resonates with fans who say they love theater, can’t stand musicals, and were surprised to discover that they liked Hamilton. It also addresses those who seem to think that Hamilton‘s value is primarily pedagogical–that it’s like School House Rock for a new generation, a random parcel of mnemonic devices and clever tunes to get the kids to finally care about the election of 1800.

I agreed emphatically with most of this article about the recent visit of the Hamilton cast to the White House, except for this line right at the end, which really worried me:

If “Hamilton” can get teens, let alone the majority of pop culture followers, to pay genuine attention to a Founding Father saga, its formula for captivating our senses is certainly worth replicating in schools.

Reinforcing that education in the arts and liberal arts molds brilliant minds capable of creating works like Hamilton = yay! But going on to suggest that the reason we should care about Hamilton is because of its functional value in getting kids interested in history = boo!

No doubt the show has inspired lots of folks to learn more about Hamilton and his crew, and that’s great. But that is not its primary purpose any more than the purpose of Macbeth is to get folks to go digging for Holinshed’s Chronicles. Its purpose is to tell a compelling story with infectious language that speaks to our current moment (only time will tell if it will also prove timeless, though I think odds are good), and to what is human in all of us. Its purpose is not to teach factoids about history, but to allow us to see our world and ourselves in a new way. The classical tragic structure of the show reminds us that Hamilton is not a lesson plan (indeed, if you took it as such you’d get some things very wrong), but a complete and coherent work of art, and one that feels very much like the vein of drama that we already almost universally hold as sacred and worthwhile.


2 thoughts on ““Yay Hamlet!”: Hamilton as Shakespearean Tragedy

  1. Pingback: That would be enough? | Chameleon in Boots

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s