By now the story of the hashtag #YayHamlet for Tweets about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s game-changing Broadway musical depicting the life of Alexander Hamilton is well known, but it bears repeating here. In February last year, when Hamilton was still playing its sold-out engagement at the Public Theater downtown, a woman driving on 181st Street stopped and rolled down her window and yelled to Miranda, “Congratulations on Hamlet!” “I WISH I wrote Hamlet,” he replied, and she shouted back, “Yay, Hamlet!” before driving off; and so the hashtag was born.
Hamilton is “Shakespearean” in many ways. Like the great playwright of the Elizabethan age, Miranda looked to history – in this case, American history – as the basis of a great dramatic story for the contemporary audience. Just as Shakespeare transformed England’s royal history into a mirror of his nation’s current challenges, Miranda drew upon U.S. political history to depict its present struggles and still-emerging identity.
What the audience sees and hears on stage is not only a depiction of the country’s ongoing divisions, but, also, living proof of its continuing-though-uneven and often-volatile progress in social, political, cultural and artistic diversity. For just a few hours in the theater, we are invited to join the terrific multi-ethnic cast and to share in and celebrate this joyous triumph of the democratic experiment.
Combing sharp intelligence with personal talent, education and experience, Miranda forged his work of genius with words – with linguistic patterns, rhythms and rhetorical devices, according to the distinct personalities of the characters – and he linked this emerging language to current music and dance, to the hip-hop cadences of speech and movement, and more. Just as the Bard raised sixteenth-century English drama to new levels, Miranda and his fellow artists have offered a new vision of creative possibilities for this millennium. Here is surely the beginning of yet another renaissance of the American theater.
One rhetorical device in Hamilton is “anaphora” — basically the repetition of the same word or words at the beginning of two or more successive lines, as Shakespeare provides for the king in Richard II:
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duteous oaths (4.1)
And so, for example, Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica sings:
I remember that night, I just might regret that night for the rest of my days.
I remember those soldier boys tripping over themselves to win our praise.
I remember that dreamlike candlelight like a dream that you can’t quite place. (1.4)
A direct nod to Shakespeare’s Macbeth comes from Hamilton as he begins a letter to Angelica with the first two lines of the title character’s most famous soliloquy:
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day”
And he continues:
I trust you’ll understand the reference to
Another Scottish tragedy without my having
To name the play.
They think me Macbeth, and ambition is my folly. (2.3)
The full soliloquy, never spoken, is relevant:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5)
Macbeth’s image of a man’s life as a “tale told by an idiot” will be a powerful theme in the final scenes of Hamilton – the fear that one’s own “story” will make no sense to posterity — and, in any case, that it will never be told correctly. So Aaron Burr knows he will never be understood, much less forgiven, for killing Hamilton in a duel:
In every picture it paints,
It paints me with all my mistakes…
I survived, but I paid for it.
Now I’m the villain in your history.” (2.22)
Then George Washington picks up this theme, lamenting that there is no controlling over “who tells your story.” The question is repeated, over and over: “Who tells your story?”
“Legacy,” Hamilton cries as he faces death. “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see…”
“And when you’re gone,” Burr agrees, “who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame?”
Such is also Hamlet’s concern as he, too, faces death as the result of a duel. “Had I but time,” the prince says, referring to his need to tell what happened; but time has run out, so he turns to his trusted friend and pleads with him:
Horatio, I am dead:
Thou livest; report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied…
O God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown shall I leave behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story. (5.2)
Horatio promises to “speak to the yet unknowing world” how all these events (that we have just witnessed) came about. He knows that while most of the prince’s contemporaries think he was “mad” or insane, that “story” is far from accurate. So it’s up to him to tell it or the truth will be lost. As George Orwell will write in 1944 during World War Two, “History is written by the winners.”
Hamilton, too, suffers from a lack of understanding by others; and as a kind of Horatio figure in this innovative musical, his widow Eliza will spend the rest of her own life piecing together her late husband’s history. But the enemy, as in the case of Hamlet’s story, is time; will she have enough time to set down the truth?
So the Twitter hashtag #YayHamlet is fitting for more than one reason. Hamilton echoes the Bard’s great tragedy of the Prince of Denmark in unmistakable ways – as if Shakespeare himself is standing ghost-like in the wings, tapping his feet and whispering his encouragement and wondering, too, along with the other historical figures on stage, whether his own true story will ever be told and who will do the telling.