Hamilton and Shakespeare

December 9, 2016




Ok, so I am pretty late to this, but Hamilton is freaking amazing!  

When it came out last year, I gave a few songs a listen and thought “Meh. Decent enough for a pop musical.”  I was definitely more intrigued with the cultural phenomenon  of schools using it to teach the Revolution, and the use of a multi-ethnic cast. And the ongoing argument within the theatre community about “Hamilton or Bust” being the reason for other shows closing.

I can vividly remember my amazement over the Fourth of July weekend at the Historical Society (seeing the First Folio) at the number  of kids singing word for word songs from a Broadway musical and actively engaging in exhibits about history.  

It wasn’t until the Tonys and seeing that performance that I thought, “Okay, now I get it.  I need to give this another listen.” And thanks to YouTube, California traffic, and my  incredibly awesome wife I was able to give it another listen (or two, or three).  

As I continued listening to it, I picked up something different with every listen, whether it was  a word, a phrase or a rhythm change - I was “non-stop” listening. It got me thinking: what could have changed from the time when I heard it for the first time to now?  Then it hit me - it’s Shakespeare. *Mind. Blown*

Early on, the tone of show is set with the more pop & hip hop sound. As this world is established, the characters all speak the same language - except Burr.


One of the things we often associate with characters that speak verse as opposed to those that speak prose, is the lower class speaks in prose, the upper class speaks in verse.  Of course that is a generalized statement, which falls apart when we think of all the upper class characters that use prose.  Hamlet, for example switches from verse to prose throughout the play, Rosalind in As You Like starts out in prose, switches to verse for a bit, before going back into prose.  Ditto, Lear.  Much Ado About Nothing has a much larger ratio of prose than verse, and those characters are both upper and lower class. Shakespeare does it for all different reasons, but to start with, it is a very simple linguistic way to make a character stand out.  


Hamilton does the exact same thing.


When we first hear Burr, his responses to Hamilton are spoken.  It’s done in rhythm, but it is distinctly different from how Hamilton is rapping.  Hamilton, Laurens, Lafayette, and Mulligan all use hip hop and rap to bond, and immediately establish a common sound.  But that common sound also leaves Burr out. Not in an upper class/lower class way, but in a way that very distinctly says: “You don’t think like us.” Which leaves Burr with the choice to either try and speak their language or not.


Shakespeare does the exact same thing.


Let’s look at 12th Night.  In Act 1.5 when Viola and Olivia meet face to face, the scene starts out in all prose.  Now, in this scene, prose is used as a means for the characters to hide their true intentions.  Obviously, Viola doesn’t want to give herself away as a woman disguised as man, and Olivia doesn’t want to give a straight answer to any of Viola’s questions.  But about

halfway through the scene something really interesting happens.  Violo switches to verse, while Olivia stays in mostly prose.  Right around line 530 we see a shift in structure as Viola begins to speak in verse, but also notice what happens with Olivia.



530 Vio. Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white,

531 Natures owne sweet, and cunning hand laid on:

532 Lady, you are the cruell’st shee aliue,

533 If you will leade these graces to the graue,

534 And leave the world no copie.

535 Ol. O sir, I will not be so hard- hearted: I will give

536 out divers scedules of my beautie. It shalbe Inventoried

537 and every particle and utensile labell’d to my will: As,

538 Item two lippes indifferent redde, Item two grey eyes,

539 with lids to them: Item, one necke, one chin, & so forth.

540 Were you sent hither to praise me?


In these 10 lines we see Viola shift into verse, but Olivia’s response is prose.  She is still playing with Viola, refusing to give a straight answer. As the scene continues, Viola stays in verse and as we will see, brings Olivia with her.  Look at this next section:


541 Vio. I see you what you are, you are too proud:

542 But if you were the divell, you are faire: