Shakespearean Hip-hop

The night before last we saw the Chicago production of the musical Hamilton. At the appointed hour, when the first round of tickets went on sale, my husband and I sat side by side, furiously working our keyboards. I felt triumphant when I scored a pair of tickets – decent seats – only to have them disappear while I was trying to pay.

Furious, I swore off Hamilton forever. My resolve faltered, however, when another block of tickets opened up months later. This time Ticketmaster eagerly took my money, and we spent the six-month interval between purchase and event doing our homework. I’d struggled to follow Miranda’s previous show, In the Heights, and vowed to do better this time. We listened to the CDs on all of our longer car trips, sometimes following along with Miranda’s book, Hamilton: the Revolution, which clarified which characters were singing. Not only does Miranda provide the complete libretto, but the side notes and articles enlighten the reader further. And I read some of the Chernow biography, though I have yet to finish it. So I thought I was ready…

Nothing could have prepared me for this particular performance, especially at this particular time in our nation. The sweeping nature of this show, the evocative use of staging, the sense of both timelessness and immediate relevance, the energy and caliber of the cast, the interaction between the cast and audience – all this made for a memorable evening.

That night we talked all through the hour-drive home, gratefully grappling with the concept that resistance and the fight against injustice are part of the American DNA. I found myself returning again and again to the great Shakespearean plays. Not only does Miranda directly reference Macbeth [without actually naming the play!], but his telling a historical tale of great import in verse mirrors Shakespeare’s histories. So does the staging, which suggests, leaving the audience to create the details. Like Shakespeare, he uses this tale to wrestle with many important issues for humanity: the struggle between right and wrong; battles for freedom from oppression; concerns about honor and loyalty; and the attributes of a good man, a good leader, and a good citizen.  And his pacing is Shakespearean, complete with well-placed episodes of comic relief in the wonderfully pompous personage of King George.

This connection is neither new nor original.

The American Shakespeare Center blog offers this:

It’s not just that Manuel is a linguistic genius. It’s that he’s a linguistic genius in many of the same ways that Shakespeare was, and the one I’m going to focus on in this post is the use of rhetoric to create character.

One of the reasons Shakespeare stands above his contemporaries is that he had such a great ear. His characters have individual voices. They don’t all speak in the same patterns, but rather, he defines each speaker by particular quirks and habits — just as we speak in everyday life. Miranda does the same thing.[i]

Oskar Eustis, The Artistic Director at New York City’s Public Theater where Hamilton was workshopped, says that Miranda, like Shakespeare, elevated the language of the people.

“In Shakespeare’s case he elevated it to iambic pentameter. In Lin-Manuels’ case he elevated it to hip-hop and rap, and he ennobled it by turning it into verse and putting it at the center of the stage. That’s exactly what Shakespeare was doing.”[ii]

And Ross Williams of the New York Shakespeare Exchange says of Shakespeare’s history plays like Henry V, “Their histories became pop culture – after all, Shakespeare was the king of pop culture of the period – just like Alexander Hamilton’s story has for us.” [iii]

For most of my childhood we saw three Shakespeare plays each summer in Stratford, CT. I’ll never forget Katherine Hepburn as Portia, or the mischief of Puck, or the pain of King Lear. Hamilton takes me back to the power of theater for me then, and it reminds me of why I loved teaching literature. We can only begin to understand ourselves as we tell and hear our stories. Great story-tellers like Shakespeare and Lin-Manuel Miranda offer entertainment and enlightenment. I am so very grateful.




[iii] Ibid.

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