There was only one rap song I liked before listening to the musical Hamilton, but my love of America’s founding era was strong enough to draw me in. Although 1776 is my favorite musical, I say that Hamilton surpasses the defending champion of Founding Father fanfiction by upping the ante. Miranda sets the entire story to music and rhythm in a way that 1776 didn’t even attempt. Ever since I began listening to the soundtrack, I’ve been in awe of Miranda’s verbal mastery.
How to defend the musical’s greatness? I don’t see offhand how someone who listens to the enrapturing lyricism of, say,
Corruption’s such an old song that we can sing along in harmony,
And nowhere is it stronger than in Albany;
This colony’s economy’s increasingly stalling,
And honestly, that’s why public service seems to be calling me.
…could simply be talked into seeing what’s right there if they don’t already. It’s a rhythmic and metrical scheme less regular or conventional than the standard Broadway fare (which allows for dead-on parodies like Spamalot and The Drowsy Chaperone) but in its effect downright pyrotechnic. Still, in continuation of my response to Ben Shapiro, I shall endeavor something.
The Meter is Epic
In his critique of Hamilton, Ben Shapiro ridicules the much admired proliferation of syllables in each line, implying that giving yourself longer to make rhymes is hardly praiseworthy.
Although long lines do not make an achievement in and of itself, they are in fact a mainstay of epic poetry. The Iliad, Odyssey, Works and Days, Aeneid, Metamorphoses, and many more were composed with lengthy meters. No less a man than Aristotle wrote about the epic genre’s expansive dactylic hexameters (12-17 syllables each) in his Poetics (Chapter 24):
As for its metre, the heroic [i.e., dactylic hexameter] has been assigned [to the epic genre] from experience… The heroic is in fact the gravest and weightiest of metres… Hence it is that no one has ever written a long story in any but heroic verse; the very nature of the thing, as we have said, teaches us to select the metre appropriate to such a story.
(trans. I. Bywater). Aristotle further remarks that epic content in any other vessel would furnish “incongruity.” That is to say, different meters suit different material. The long lines, as he explains, are suited to the variety, episodes, and overall length that distinguish epics from more concise tragedies.
Give Us a Verse
The 22,000-line-long narrative has more in common with an epic poem than the average Broadway musical does. Miranda not only tells virtually the entire story in verse, but accomplishes feats like this:
As you can see I kept a record of every check in my checkered
History. Check it again against your list n’ see consistency.
I never spent a cent that wasn’t mine;
You sent the dogs after my scent, that’s fine.
—from “We Know,” a tightly-woven web of intense repetition. These lines prove that the proliferation of syllables isn’t lavish prodigality designed to avoid rhyming as much as possible. Instead, Miranda packs the intervening lines with consonant virtuosity. Consider these lines of Eliza’s:
“I have never been the one to try and grab the spotlight;
We were with some rebels at a revel on a hot night.”
The middle of a second line contains a slant rhyme (remarkably close to a true rhyme, because of the phonemic proximity of b/v) and, on top of that, both last syllables of the lines rhyme (spot/hot and light/night).
Miranda allows very rare prose exceptions, as when Burr narrates the creation of The Federalist Papers, or when George Washington delivering his vaunted Farewell Address—which, at any rate, was bound to be a special and set-apart moment of the show. Indeed, it is something akin to the scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas when Linus stands up onstage and quotes verbatim from the Gospel of Luke.
Parallels in Every Paragraph
The musical’s entire premise springs, not from a fixed program of making the Founding Fathers speak today’s language but from a natural pre-existing similarity between the life of Alexander Hamilton and numerous conventions, tropes, and mainstays of hip-hop. Hamilton’s father deserted his family and a hurricane wrecked his home. He landed a better life for himself by writing about these hardships. He spent that life going toe-to-toe with other figures of prominence, from Kings and Tories to Southern…Democratic-Republicans.
Not only does Hamilton’s story evoke hip-hop culture, there is congruity between the musical’s extended meter and the expansive prose of the Founders. That is why verbatim quotes from the historical figures mesh well with poetic lines in the musical, even when juxtaposed humorously against the characters’ sometimes childlike antics. After all, these men spoke in paragraphs. The first line provides a taste of all that is to come:
How does a bastard, orphan, son
of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle
of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
inpoverished in squalor,
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
This line covers Hamilton’s life as a whole, gives a hint of character development in Burr’s uncomprehending attitude toward the prodigy, and, importantly here, provides a sample of the verbose Revolutionary style. It’s another feature, ultimately, of the brilliant wedding of subject matter and style, the content and the conduit.
To Rhyme is Divine
I’ve heard it said that cheap rhymes pull at mere sound repetition, while truly artful rhymes connect words where ideas also coincide. In “Say No to This,” Miranda carries this idea to perfection,
“James Reynolds: You see, that was my wife who you decided to
James: Uh-oh! You made the wrong sucker a cuckold
So time to pay the piper for the pants you unbuckled.”
by rhyming “cuckold” and “unbuckled.” He packages this connection with brilliant firecracker consonance, underscoring the electrifying news of Reynolds’ revelation.
Over and over, Miranda achieves the general artistic principle to make as many connections as possible. A confluence of the musical’s artistic unity emerges in “Schuyler Defeated” (one of the most worthy reprise songs I’ve ever heard):
Burr: Oh, Wall Street thinks you’re great;
You’ll always be adored by the things you create
Hamilton: Wait –”
These twenty-two syllables contain four end rhymes that all coincide and play with each, while also encapsulating the changing dynamic between these two mimetic rivals. Burr is picking up his rhythm of life, indulging his ambition, while Hamilton, trying to slow him down, becomes complicit in it by his mere interference (which, of course, characterizes all his interactions with Burr in politics).
On top of this, the climax of the series of rhymes is “wait”, a word freighted with meaning from its prominence in refrains from both Hamilton and Burr. Hamilton sings, “Just you wait,” from his first song and repeats it throughout, while Burr has, up until right about now, been willing to “wait for it.” On top of all of this, there’s the rich irony of Hamilton’s interrupting Burr to tell him to wait and be patient. Burr refuses.
Behind His Story
With the characters, plot, history, and themes, the musical makes ideas work seamlessly on multiple different levels. As a further example, take this heated exchange from “Meet Me Inside,” after a forbidden duel has taken place:
Washington: You solve nothing; you aggravate our allies to the south.
Hamilton: You’re absolutely right, John shoulda shot him in the mouth.
That would have shut him up.”
This fits perfectly within the flow of the story, with the unifying Washington staving off in-fighting and the young, cocky Hamilton shooting off his sarcastic mouth.
These lines also work on a historical level: Around this same time, another slanderer of George Washington named Thomas Conway was dueled by John Cadwalader who did, in fact, shoot him in the mouth. While Conway writhed on the ground (he survived, and lived another twenty-two years), Cadwalader remarked, “I have stopped the damned rascal’s lying tongue, at any rate.” This historical gem is present in this couplet, just beneath the surface.
Hamilton isn’t a treasure in the “first you have to lobotomize yourself” sense, or in the sense that you have to spend forever squinting at it to find something even minimally praiseworthy. Distinct, countable layers of meaning unfold behind the lines for all the history, wordplay, and intertextuality you uncover.