Tell My Story: Shakespeare and Hamilton

I wasn’t going to write about Hamilton, because after the utter flood of coverage, what’s left to say? But I love history plays, and have spend huge portions of the past year and a half thinking about them– and the more I thought about them in relation to Hamilton, the more of a pattern I began to see with regards to the female characters.

Hamilton’s reclamation of the history play for minority voices is one of its most trumpeted elements– and for English-language drama, the history play is a genre that is deeply indebted to Shakespeare. In addition to his participation in the Shakespearean tradition of layering the patterns of tragedy onto the events of history, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s treatment of female characters in Hamilton also directly evokes tropes and structures made famous by Shakespeare.

One of Shakespeare’s most famous historical scenes is found in Richard II, and depicts privileged people who are nonetheless at the very margins of power: the Queen of England, wife of King Richard II, accidentally overhears from two gardeners’ gossip that her husband has been deposed, that she is no longer queen. She’s so far from power, it has evidently not occurred to anyone to even update her on what is going on.

In another famous scene, female characters are more actively shoved from power: in Henry IV Part One, Lady Percy begs her husband, Henry “Hotspur” Percy, to let her in on the rebellion that he’s planning. She obliquely suggests that she has a double right to the knowledge, as his wife and as the sister of his suspected co-conspirator. Hotspur flatly refuses, and though he agrees to allow her to follow him on his impending journey, he refuses to tell her where they’ll be going or why.

So far, so familiar. Wives left behind by duty-bound, ambition-fueled men, we see that all the time. We even see it in the first act of Hamilton with Eliza Hamilton’s repeated refrain of “isn’t this enough?”, to which Alexander’s implicit answer always turns out to be no.

But with both of these Shakespeare characters– and, indeed, with other women throughout his history plays– there is a slight twist. As King Richard, now deposed, is led away to prison, he bids farewell to his wife and leaves her with a final request: “In winter’s tedious nights sit by the fire/With good old folks and let them tell thee tales/Of woeful ages long ado betid;/And ere thou bid good night, to quit their griefs,/Tell thou the lamentable tale of me.”

Lady Percy actually does this, positioning herself as the true bearer of her husband’s legacy after he is killed in battle, relating tales of his deeds when she thinks they have been forgotten: “[His honor] stuck upon him as the sun/In the grey vault of heaven, and by his light/Did all the chivalry of England move/To do brave acts […] He was the mark and glass, copy and book,/That fashioned others.”

Despite their explicit exclusion from their husbands’ actions, they become the bearers of their stories after their deaths. And the same can basically be said of Eliza in Hamilton. Her aim in most of her scenes echoes that of Lady Percy in most of hers: to persuade her husband to stay home, stay domestic, stay by her side. And both Harry Percy and Alexander Hamilton reject this offer repeatedly, committing great deeds (and not-so-great ones) in a world in which their wives aren’t welcome. Like Richard’s Queen’s eavesdropping revelation of her husband’s deposition, Eliza finds out her husband’s lurid secret when he publishes a pamphlet revealing it to the world.

Subsequently, in her only entirely solo number, “Burn,” Eliza undertakes to “eras[e herself] from the narrative/Let future historians wonder how/Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.” It’s an exciting example of how a dramatist can use gaps in the historical record to fill in a character’s arc– in this case, the fact that the real Eliza Hamilton, for some reason, destroyed her letters– but also points to what she clearly views as her future role: not a player in her own right, but a source of the information with which others may build her husband’s legacy. And, in the final number, when she “put[s herself] back in the narrative,” it is in precisely this role.

The closing number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” provides an answer to the third clause of its title: Eliza will tell Alexander’s story. It details her fifty-year effort to tell her husband’s story– like Lady Percy, to remind others of the importance of a life she fears is being forgotten.

(It’s interesting, and probably too much to fully cover here, that this precise role also exists in In the Heights, but is filled by the main male character, Usnavi, while his female love interest yearns to escape and rejects the vision of neighborhood loyalty that Usnavi ultimately dedicates himself to upholding.)

The unique ways in which female characters interact with and ultimately propagate historical narratives are strikingly similar in Miranda’s musical and Shakespeare’s later history plays. The women are not quite in the room where it happens, but maybe listening at the door. In Shakespeare, there seems to be an implicit link between their exclusion from the direct action of the play and their ability to assume the role of narrator. It’s fascinating to see how directly this narrative pattern is echoed by Hamilton. If it’s not a conscious look back towards Shakespeare (which I certainly wouldn’t put past Miranda), it’s proof of how deeply embedded Shakespeare’s tropes and structures are within our impulses about how to dramatize history.

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