Hamilton and Medieval Drama


The genesis of this paper dates to about a year ago.  I was participating in a year-long Folger seminar about medieval drama—along with several people here today, including the organizer of this session and the two other presenters, incidentally–in which we read chapters of Claire Sponsler’s Ritual Imports:  Performing Medieval Drama in America.  At the same time, I was teaching an undergraduate seminar about producing early drama, so I was thinking about how to present medieval drama in ways engaging and accessible for novice learners.  Meanwhile, my home life was steeped in Hamilton, the shared obsession of my youngest child and myself, which resulted in a trip to Chicago to see the production.  Sometimes things that find themselves sharing space in your brain speak to one another, pointing out connections and parallels that might have gone unnoticed under other circumstances.  Which is how I found myself thinking about how many techniques used to significant and sophisticated effect in medieval drama are similarly employed in Hamilton.  I’m not arguing direct influence from medieval drama to Hamilton.  Claire Sponsler’s work, particularly Ritual Imports, finds, and encourages us to find, inheritors and echoes of the medieval dramatic tradition in America.   One such echo is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s HamiltonHamilton employs several signature techniques of medieval drama, including strategic anachronism, the tyrant’s boast, audience positioning, a mediating narrator, and direct address. 

Strategic anachronism

Strategic anachronism is, arguably, THE core dramatic technique of Hamilton.  Observing the personality and thematic connections between Alexander Hamilton and the rap artists he admired, Miranda set out to tell Hamilton’s story in a decidedly not 18th century musical genre.  The palimpsest of 18th and 21st century America in Hamilton is also obvious in its costuming choices—18th c clothing, 21st c hairstyles—as well as its casting, having nearly every character played by a person of color.  Within this overarching use, there are subtle moments of strategic anachronism as well.  Samuel Seabury’s “Farmer Reputed,” which urges the colonists not to rebel, is the only song that sounds like ‘real, historical’ 18th music would have.  More subtly still, Thomas Jefferson’s “What’d I Miss?” draws on ragtime and boogie-woogie styles rather than rap. 

Hamilton’s use of strategic anachronism has drawn accolades.  Reviewers and critics point out the musical’s use of rap is not merely “kitschy anachronism” (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/theater/lin-manuel-miranda-and-others-from-hamilton-talk-history.html) but a key component of a central theme:  the parallel between the immigrant Hamilton, working his way up, and his 21th century counterparts, especially rap artists who write music as their way out of poverty.  Others have pointed to the casting and costumes as part of Hamilton’s linking the American Revolution and its thirst for freedom with the same desire in enslaved persons then, and those who continue to be disadvantaged by racism and prejudice now.  The musical style of “Farmer Reputed” tells the audience he’s not on their side before Samuel Seabury sings a word, and Jefferson’s behind the times style indicates that Jefferson has come back from France out of touch with current thought and culture in America. 

All this has been hailed as groundbreaking but medieval drama specialists recognize the technique.  We’ve seen it before, and used to similar effect.  The shepherds in Nativity plays are English shepherds, grumbling about very real aspects of their contemporary medieval lives.  The workmen in the York Crucifixion are from that city, not Jerusalem.  The Towneley Cain and Abel behave like medieval farmers and shepherds.  In medieval drama, as in Hamilton, anachronism is neither ‘kitschy’ nor the result of a lack of historical awareness.  Some of you, I’m sure, will remember, as I do, being taught that medieval drama uses contemporary medieval costumes and characterization because they didn’t really understand that biblical-era figures would behave and dress differently.  This, of course, is as ridiculous as claiming that Lin-Manuel Miranda constructed Hamilton as a rap musical because he didn’t know Colonial America wouldn’t have rap.  Rather, in both cases, the anachronism is strategic, used to point out parallels and connections between then and now

The Tyrant’s Boast

Another signature technique of medieval drama that is also used in Hamilton is the tyrant’s boast.  Herod and the other tyrants of medieval drama frequently threaten retribution upon their enemies and/or the audience—so much so that there is specific terminology in medieval drama for this sort of speech:  the ‘boast’ or ‘making his boast.’  As medieval drama specialists, our ears prick up when we hear King George’s first song “You’ll Be Back,” in which the king warns the rebellious colonists that they belong to him and he’ll “send a fully armed battalion” and “kill [their] friends and family” to help them remember. 

Now, there’s a lot going on in this song.  It’s another example of strategic anachronism.  “You’ll Be Back” is stylistically in the mode of a 1960s Beatles’ song.  The song also posits the England-America relationship as a dysfunctional romance, making use of every trope of a jealous, controlling boyfriend.  This has the effect of making us think about how ludicrous it is to put up with such things in a personal relationship, since they sound patently ridiculous and obviously abusive in a political one.  But the song is also a tyrant’s boast of the sort we see in medieval drama.  King George and Herod the Great are cast from the same mold. 

Audience Positioning

King George’s tyrant’s boast segways nicely to the third technique we see in both Hamilton and medieval drama.  “I’ll Be Back,” “Farmer Refuted,” and the casting of Hamilton work together to create audience positioning every bit as effective as in medieval drama.  The bad guys in medieval drama often position the audience as their subjects, addressing them directly and, typically, threatening dire retribution if their wishes are not met.  As is well known, Mankind goes beyond this fairly simple use of audience positioning.  New Guide, Nowadays, and Nought encourage the audience to pay to see Titivillus, with the result that the audience is spiritually shaky no matter which choice they make.  Paying to see the devil is bad, but so is not contributing money towards the entertainment they are enjoying.  This positioning of the audience is part of Mankind’s wider strategy of not just showing a representative soul’s fall into sin and need for redemption, but putting the audience through the same process. 

Hamilton does similarly complex work with audience positioning.  “Farmer Refuted,” as discussed above, uses contextually ‘old’ music to signal to the audience that Seabury is decidedly out of step with current American sentiment.  Things do not improve for him once he begins singing.  He directly addresses the audience as the rebellious colonials, urging them to reconsider:  “Heed not the rabble who scream ‘revolution’.  They have not your interest at heart.”  Hamilton confronts Seabury, who resists engaging with him, preferring to repeat his song as Hamilton grows increasingly frustrated by his unwillingness to debate.  They are interrupted by a messenger announcing ‘a message from the King’ and the center of the stage clears so King George can deliver “You’ll Be Back.” 

At this point in Hamilton, then, the only two main characters played by white actors (at least in the original Broadway production, as well as the Chicago production) have spoken in turn to the audience, calling them (us) rebellious colonials, cravenly urging them (us) to capitulate (Seabury) and threatening us if we don’t (King George).  If the audience wants to align themselves with the heroes, the Americans, they have to identify with characters played by black actors.  This is probably not a stretch for audience members who are people of color, and it is likely such audience members have different reactions to this moment that I did, and that the other white audience members did in the production I attended.  What I saw was distinct discomfort among many white audience members—shifting in seats, looking at one another, looking away from King George.  The only Americans available to align ourselves with are black, and for at least some white audience members, this proved to be a difficult position to find themselves forced into.  This was particularly evident when King George invites audience members to sing along (“Everybody!”).  I was watching carefully.  I wanted to see what would happen during this especially apt parallel to the moment in Mankind in which New Guise, Nowadays, and Nought coax the audience to sing along to their profane ‘Christmas Song’.  Some people hang with them through the whole thing, despite its awfulness, and surely singing along with King George had to be just as bad.  And, indeed, some audience members did.  But mostly older, white guys.  That is super anecdotal and limited information, of course, but intriguing for all that.  It appeared to be identities coming into conflict for these audience members, and struggling as to which would come out on top. 

I don’t believe that Hamilton is making a wider claim about the relationship of race and patriotism.  It is certainly not asserting that in real life it is impossible to be white and American any more than Mankind is suggesting that it is impossible to live without constant no-win spiritual decisions.  Rather, in both cases, audience positioning is used to make observers uncomfortable for the span of time that they’re watching the play, to disrupt their usual ways of thinking about themselves.  In the same way that Mankind boxes its audience in, requiring them to acknowledge their need for redemption, Hamilton requires its audience, if they want to think of themselves as Americans, to link themselves with black Americans.  The musical does not provide the category of white American.  To be American is to be black, for 2 and a half hours at least, just as in Mankind, to be in the audience is to be a sinner in need of redemption.   

Mediating Narrator

A fourth signature technique of medieval drama that is also used in Hamilton is the mediating narrator.  This was the biggest surprise for me when I finally got to see the production.  I’d listened to the soundtrack many times and of course realized that characters address the audience frequently, often times fulfilling the role of a narrator, providing description of and commentary upon what happens.  What was not apparent until seeing the production was that most of these narrative moments are delivered by Burr.  In medieval drama, we are accustomed to seeing characters like the expositors introduce what will happen and explain it afterwards.  Burr opens the show (“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and Scotsman…”) and returns to the stage again and again to describe what is happening with Hamilton in particular and the action of the Revolution in general (“How does a rag-tag voluntary army in need of a shower, somehow defeat a global superpower?”).  Indeed, in the same way that Mercy is arguably the more central character of the play we call Mankind, opening and closing the show and providing meditating commentary throughout, Burr is arguably as central to Hamilton as its titular character.  As our touchstone, functioning as our guide and narrator, Burr explains from the beginning who he is (“I’m the damn fool that shot him”) and tries to justify his actions through his by-no-means objective commentary.  He is a mediating narrator, but like those of medieval drama, that does not mean he has no point of view of his own.  Medieval narrators guide our interpretation of what we see, as does Burr. 

Burr’s role also points us to a bonus medieval drama technique—playing fair with the bad guys.  Just as in medieval drama, the devils are taken seriously and are given their best pitch to make to the audience, so does Burr.  He is allowed his own songs (“Dear Theodosia” and “Wait for It”) in which to explain his point of view and motivations.  By the end, we see that he is indeed the villain in Hamilton’s story, but we’re left to decide for ourselves whether that makes him a villain in his own story. 

Direct Address

The most pervasive signature technique of medieval drama also found in Hamilton is direct address.  Direct address is widely recognized as a foundational technique of medieval drama; Meg Twycross, for example, says there’s no such thing as soliloquy in medieval drama, that characters speak continually and openly to the audience (Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Theatre).  Medieval drama uses a range of types of direct address.  Explicit direct address, which rhetorically signals that the audience is being address by the use of appositives, imperatives, and/or the second person pronoun).  Implicit direct address, in which the speech makes best sense when directed to the audience although it does not bear explicit rhetorical markers that it must be.  Semi-direct address, in which a character addresses both another character or characters and the audience simultaneously.  Hamilton utilizes the full range of possibilities for addressing the audience.  There is no possible way I could consider all the instances of direct address in Hamilton.  The following are illustrative and interesting, but by no means exhaustive, examples. 

Burr’s speeches to the audience in his dual role of mediating narrator and antagonist use both implicit direct address and explicit direct address.  Indeed, in the first song of the musical, Burr uses both.  His first lines, already cited above, are implicit, but later in the same song he instructs the audience “See him now as he stands on / The bow of a ship headed for a new land” and, even more clearly, “The ship is in the harbor now, see if you can spot him.”  The pattern established here continues.  Throughout the musical, Burr addresses the audience regularly, both explicitly and implicitly. 

As with Burr, so with the rest of the musical.  Explicit and implicit direct address occurs frequently and throughout.  Laurens, Mulligan, and Lafayette introduce themselves to the audience, reminiscent of many times in medieval drama when characters take a moment to tell us about themselves before starting their action—the beginning of Castle of Perseverance, for instance, or Mercy and Mankind’s first appearances in Mankind.  Washington is both introduced with explicit direct address—“ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve been waiting for”—and then uses direct address to explain the dire situation of the revolution (“Can I be real a second?  For just a millisecond?  Let down my guard and tell the people how I feel a second?”).  Hamilton himself, of course, has several examples of direct address, from simple “I have never seen the General so despondent” (“Stay Alive”) to profound “I imagine death so much it feels just like a memory.”   In “The Schuyler Sisters,” each one introduces themselves by name, and Angelica describes herself more fully.  She talks to the audience both implicitly and explicitly in “Satisfied.”  (“So, so, so, this is what it feels like to match wits…” “I asked him about his family—did you see his answer?”)  Indeed, it would be easier to find a character in Hamilton who does not have any moments of direct address than to list all those who do. 


So Hamilton uses several dramatic techniques that we also see in medieval drama.  So what?  There’s no argument to be made for influence.  Several influences are at work in Hamilton, but early drama isn’t one of them.  So why spend any time at all on an accident, a coincidence? 

One answer, I think, is that it’s not a coincidence.  It’s not direct influence, but it’s not mere coincidence either.  The dramatic techniques medieval drama and Hamilton both make use of are, I suggest, a reason for their success.  Medieval drama is effective and powerful in large measure due to its sophisticated employment of these techniques.  Hamilton, I would suggest, is a more successful show than Miranda’s earlier In the Heights at least in part due to its more pervasive and developed use of these techniques. 

Second, there’s pedagogical opportunity.  Talking directly to the audience often seems undeveloped to students, who usually come to our classrooms having been taught that soliloquies are the height of dramatic achievement.  Showing them that Hamilton uses direct address can help students past that.  The same is true with strategic anachronism, the tyrant’s boast, audience positioning, and the mediating narrator.  Such techniques are too often discussed among non-specialists as evidence of medieval drama’s amateurishness, its simplicity, and/or its lack of dramatic depth.  We can help students shed those assumptions by showing them that the runaway Broadway hit of the decade, and perhaps their lives, uses the same set of tools.

Indeed, there’s a deeper discussion to be had with students about that simplistic perception of medieval drama, and here, too, Hamilton provides a useful touchstone.  The story of medieval drama remains too often told by non-specialists, who reinscribe outmoded understandings, sometimes accidentally, not being current on insights gained from new research, but sometimes with a certain amount of malice.  It has been in the best interests of adherents of later drama to cast medieval drama as the ‘primitive beginnings’ from which later (and hence, better) drama evolved, a story we know to be incorrect but nonetheless we all know continues to be told.  Students sometimes become skeptical when we explain that medieval drama is subtle and sophisticated, since the narrative they’ve been told is that early drama is simplistic.  But this dovetails perfectly with a core theme of Hamilton—who tells your story? That is, how you live your life is important—but equally important is who tells about your life after you’re gone.  Their presentation, their interpretation, of your deeds determines how you will be remembered and perceived.  Bringing Hamilton into the discussion in our medieval drama classes can help students recognize that a narrative can be passed on, but nonetheless be mistaken, making it easier for them to understand and accept the complexity of medieval drama, despite what they may have learned before.