Hamilton and Shakespeare


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:

543 My Lord, and master loves you: O such loue

544 Could be but recompenc’d, though you were crown’d

545 The non- pareil of beautie.

546 Ol. How does he love me?

Let’s approach the text as if the last two lines of this part are shared.

“The non-pareil of beautie. How does he love me”

Twelve beats in total. Olivia’s part is only five which is half a perfect iamb, but when we look at Viola’s seven beats can you feel her heart gearing up to something? Can you get the sense of Olivia’s gentle calming rhythm settling down Viola?

547 Vio. With adorations, fertill teares,

548 With groanes that thunder love, with sighes of fire.

549 Ol. Your Lord does know my mind, I cannot love him

550 Yet I suppose him vertuous, know him noble,

551 Of great estate, of fresh and stainlesse youth;

552 In voyces well divulg’d, free, learn’d, and valiant,

553 And in dimension, and the shape of nature,

554 A gracious person; But yet I cannot loue him:

555 He might haue tooke his answer long ago.

When we look at the structure of Viola’s text, we see two quick phrases, with commas, separating them. But also, notice the short verse line that starts the line. It’s only 8 beats. Shakespeare gives you 2 extra beats of white space to play with. And when we get to Olivia, her text is now in verse, but it is very scattered, and not in perfect 10-beat meter. What in the world is going on with these ladies? Let’s keep going and see if the this final section offers up an answer.

556 Vio. If I did love you in my masters flame,

557 With such a suffring, such a deadly life:

558 In your deniall, I would finde no sence,

559 I would not understand it.

560 Ol. Why, what would you?

561 Vio. Make me a willow Cabine at your gate,

562 And call vpon my soule within the house,

563 Write loyall Cantons of contemned loue,

564 And sing them lowd euen in the dead of night:

565 Hallow your name to the reverberate hilles,

566 And make the babling Gossip of the aire,

567 Cry out Oliuia: O you should not rest

568 Betweene the elements of ayre, and earth,

569 But you should pittie me

With the very first line in this section, we get the key to Viola’s shift. When you count out the stresses in “If I did love you in my masters flame” what do you notice about the where the stresses fall? Hopefully, you hear that “love” and “master” are in dominant stress places. And because she is speaking from the heart, and a place of sincerity that she loves Orsino so much she is willing to try and convince another woman to love him...that power, that love, bring Olivia into verse as well. Granted, not the way either Viola or Orsino hoped or wanted, but it happened. Because she wants to be on that same level as Viola. She begins to speak her language.

So much like the way we hear Burr. Just out of rhythm enough for the ear to take notice.

Another great example is King George. The Brit-pop sound is drastically different from the other music in the show, that I can’t help but compare it how Shakespeare plays verse and prose off each other to show the difference in thought between characters.

Let’s look at Fenton in Merry Wives of Windsor. He is the only character in the play that speaks entirely in verse. Shakespeare sets him apart from all the lies, plots and mischief in the play, and has him speak from the heart. All he cares about is Anne. Shakespeare highlights this by having him speak solely in verse.

This is much like how King George is so vastly different in style from the rest of the show. It’s done to highlight the differences between how the colonies think and how Britain thinks. Basically the same way Shakespeare separates Fenton through his speech patterns, Lin-Manuel Miranda does the same thing for King George.

These are only a couple of examples, and it doesn’t even begin to cover any of the rhetorical similarities that other articles have brought up. This is a great one that goes in depth about all the ways Hamilton uses rhetoric in a similar way to Shakespeare. There is also a great article here that compares Hamilton to Prince Hal from Henry IV. I guess I wasn’t the only one who thought Lin-Manuel Miranda took a sheaf out of Shakespeare’s book to write this generation-defining piece.

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