Hamilton: “An American Myth”
Though the tagline for Hamilton is “An American Musical,” it’s perhaps better described as “An American Myth.” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s references to classical sources contain such breadth and depth that it might be difficult to take them all in over the course of one single performance, but even if the exact allusions aren’t always readily apparent, Hamilton nevertheless creates the sense that a story hinging on back-room politicking and petty jealousy contains universal truths that can speak to its audience across the gulf of time.
The first, and most consistent, allusion Miranda makes is the constant parallel between the arc of his narrative and that of Dante’s Divine Comedy; from close character correlations, to the general structure of the two stories.
We first sense this during the show’s opening number, when Leslie Odom Jr. appears to be playing some sort of dispassionate narrator, someone who will help the audience navigate the historical challenges a story like this presents, only to reveal himself as the “The damn fool that shot [Hamilton].”
With this dual role in the story – both audience guide and character – he immediately harkens to Virgil, Dante’s mentor responsible for guiding him through his tour of the afterlife:
The dynamic between each story’s two leads begins in strikingly similar fashion, too…
Dante begins the Comedy lost, unsure where he is going in his life, stating “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, / I found myself within a shadowed forest, / for I had lost the path that does not stray” (Canto 1, Lines 1-3, Mandelbaum translation). He then meets Virgil and recognizes him as a kindred spirit, one who inspires him to be better and one whom he hopes can provide specific advice and help. Virgil, in turn, offers to take him on his tour of the afterlife so that he can find his true purpose.
Once Hamilton arrives in New York City as a young man, he feels driven and has many goals, but does not know the first step to take in order to accomplish them. This leads him to approach Burr to find out what sets him apart, and what allowed him to graduate from Princeton at so young an age. Upon recognizing their shared status as orphans, Burr offers Hamilton a drink and some free advice that constitutes his fundamental approach to the world: “Talk less, smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.”
Hamilton’s life then essentially becomes a retelling of the first two sections of the Divine Comedy, as he journeys through the Inferno of revolutionary war and progresses into the earthly Purgatory of politics and statesmanship. And by thinking of each act as being a different realm, populated by characters who cannot cross from one to the other, it helps justify the way in which the supporting cast changes between Acts I and II (the Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan disappear and are replaced with Jefferson, Phillip Hamilton, and Madison). The former trio belonged to the Inferno of war, introducing themselves with a toast “to the Revolution”#, while the latter trio belong to the human Purgatory that encompasses both politics and family.
Yet as Hamilton marches onward and upward on his journey of self-discovery, a different classical source begins to shed its thematic, holy light on Miranda’s tale…
In Burr’s last song in the show#, sung immediately after his fatal duel with Hamilton, he is no longer the steadfast all-knowing guide, but a broken man guided by remorse:
When Alexander aimed
At the sky,
He may have been the first one to die,
But I’m the one who paid for it.
I survived but I paid for it.
Now I’m the villain in your history.
I was too young and blind to see.
I should’ve known.
I should’ve known
The world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.
The world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.
Seeing Burr in this way, as a former friend turned enemy and killer who comes to deeply regret his actions, he appears less mentoring Virgil and more repentant Judas. His claim that he “paid for it” particularly brings out this comparison, reminding us that Judas was paid thirty pieces of silver to betray Christ (a payment he too attempts to return after realizing the magnitude of his mistake). But it is too late to take back his actions, just as it is too late for Burr to prevent himself from shooting Hamilton, even as he yells “Wait!” as he pulls the trigger.
Extending this metaphor outward obviously casts Hamilton as Christ, the forsaken victim. But Jesus is also the the ultimate example of George Washington’s observation that we “have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells [our] story”#, as nothing of Jesus survives except through the lenses of Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and Paul. Angelica emphasizes this leitmotif echo in the show’s final number when she laments, “Every other founding father’s story gets told / Every other founding father gets to grow old.”
Still, the fundamental aspect of the story of Christ is the resurrection. Death was not the end; instead, he returned in his full power and glory. He receives a satisfying ending, with his story wrapping up in a way that doesn’t leave any loose ends or unfulfilled potential. In much the same way, Dante gets to travel through Paradise, ultimately looking on the face of God before returning to earth. Hamilton’s narrative, on the other hand, remains essentially unfinished. His life ends without opportunities like these. In his final moments Hamilton claims to “catch a glimpse of the other side.” As the musical nears its end Eliza sings to Hamilton, “Oh, I can’t wait to see you again. It’s only a matter of time,” before they join hands and walk offstage together. If Heaven does exist for these characters, it is beyond depiction.
We are left to understand these people only as they existed here on earth, as a result of the imperfect records they left behind. ..
For an American myth, this ending is only fitting.
It’s hard to imagine what Paradise would look like for this story; as the “great, unfinished symphony” of Hamilton’s description, American political life is an ever-ongoing enterprise. Though Miranda uses reference and allegory in a way that elevates Hamilton to a place in the pantheon of Great Works, the awe-inspiring wonder of America is that it was made by mere mortals, people just as likely as not to die too early.
Though we are, as American citizens, stuck in the Purgatory of the political, Hamilton’s life is a lesson that we must all work toward making it into the Paradise he never lived to see.
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