November 11, 2016


The Throne Room Where It Happens : Shakespeare's Prince Hal, Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, and the art of the compromise. (Isaac Butler, 11/07/16, Slate)

Recently, a debate between historians and fans about Hamilton's approach to history, and thus its meaning, has bubbled up into the popular consciousness. Hamilton is a truly great work, brilliantly constructed and important, but lost at times in the stories about Hamilton-the-phenomenon--a discussion of what Hamilton represents--is a real inquiry into what Hamilton means, what choices Hamilton is making, and how those choices reveal its attitude towards politics, authority, history, and power. Looking at Hamilton through the lens of 1 Henry IV puts these choices in stark relief, revealing ways in which both Hamilton and 1 Henry IV avoid simple hagiography, and the ways in which the musical has a far more optimistic view of power than Shakespeare's.

1 Henry IV and Hamilton both use doubling to explore their central themes. In 1 Henry IV, Prince Hal's adversary is Henry Percy, called Hotspur, "a son who is the theme of Honor's tongue," in contrast to Hal, who spends all day partying and all night robbing with his best friend, the disgraced knight Sir John Falstaff. Shakespeare went so far as to change the ages of his two Henrys to make the parallel sharper, and to have Hal's father openly wish, "that it could be proved/ That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged/ In cradle-clothes our children where they lay," so he could be Hotspur's father instead.

What Hal knows, however, and Hotspur does not, is that "honor" is a kind of performance. Hotspur is incapable of adapting contextually to the situations in which he finds himself. When the king insults him, he fires angrily back at him because his honor is wounded. He alienates a key ally by mocking him for being a wizard instead of a soldier. He's unable to stop thinking of the thrill of battle, even when his wife beckons him to her bed. His inability to modulate flows from his mistaken belief that honor is an attribute. You either have it or you don't. Because of this, he is easily manipulated by his father and uncle (who he believes have honor), and vastly underestimates King Henry IV and his son (who he believes do not).

The King and Hal both understand that honor is not a quality of character. It is, rather, a public performance of masculine virtue. When the king upbraids his son for his party-boy ways, the substance of his scolding centers largely on critiquing Hal's performance in the role of heir to the throne. As Henry IV explains, back before he usurped Richard II and became king, "By being seldom seen, I could not stir/ But like a comet I was wondered at." Henry IV discusses himself in actor's terms, even discussing his regal bearing as a costume: "And then I stole all courtesy from heaven/ And dressed myself in such humility/ That I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts."

Often, this scene--much like the Henriad in general--is read as a step in Hal's transformation from feckless youth to virtuous king. This is the Hal we glimpse in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, and it is also how I was taught 1 Henry IV in high school. Yet this essentially heroic view of Hal is belied by the text itself. Hal becomes a great leader and king because he is a brilliant performer. He even promises his father that his reformation will come in combat when he wears "a bloody mask/ Which, washed away, shall scour my shame with it." In his lone soliloquy in the play, which arrives minutes after we first meet him in Act 1, he explicitly declares his wastrel ways a strategic show for the public, saying of his offstage drunkard friends:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at

As the scholar Tony Tanner notes in Prefaces to Shakespeare, this soliloquy has been interpreted myriad ways but "it is--I think--unarguably unpleasant, and if it is so for us it is simply calumny to think it wasn't for Shakespeare." If we do find any part of it admirable, it is in how Hal has such firm and constant control over the narrative of himself. Hal is able to build and maintain his legacy because all he cares about is his performance. He doesn't care about his friends (he exiles one and hangs another in later plays), and he doesn't care about principle (the war he fights in Henry V is a cynical PR move urged on him by his dying father). The Henriad presents us with a shockingly jaundiced picture of the ancestor of the queen it was performed in front of, and a troubling view of power: Perhaps, Shakespeare speculated, authority and humanity are mutually exclusive. Hotspur is too human to be king, too full of a constant self that Hal completely lacks. He, like Richard II before him, is doomed from the start by his own intemperate refusal to modulate his performance.

In Hamilton, it is Alexander who is often too hot-headed, too quick to express himself, too unwilling to follow his double Aaron Burr's advice that he "talk less, smile more" as he builds his legacy. Yet Alexander is also a brilliant performer, largely through the written word, which he tells us has gotten him "out of hell" and into the revolution, given him a wife and the command of a new vast financial system. His lexical genius is bolstered by something Prince Hal for the most part lacks: chutzpah.

Hamilton's double is Aaron Burr. Both are orphans. Both feel the weight of history on their shoulders. Both will fight in the Revolutionary War, become fathers, enter politics. Most importantly, both desire a legacy, and thus are filled with an unquenchable ambition to achieve.

Hamilton and Burr's primary difference is over tactics, not objectives. Aaron Burr is all restraint, terrified of giving offense to anyone. When, during their first meeting, Hamilton says to Burr that he's been looking for him, Burr responds, "I'm getting nervous." Hamilton is all audacity, incapable of stopping himself from "talking too loud." Hamilton will risk everything--including his life--on huge gambits, publicly speaking out for independence and stealing a cannon from the British.

Posted by at November 11, 2016 5:02 AM