The Contemporary Influence of the Renaissance: Hamilton and Shakespeare

By Jennifer Murphy, Assistant Editor of Humanities

Many people believe that Renaissance literature and hip-hop do not interact with each other. These two areas are often never discussed at the same time when studying the English language. However, playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda has revealed a powerful connection between them.

Miranda gathered inspiration from both hip-hop and the works of William Shakespeare when writing his Broadway play, Hamilton. The play uses hip-hop and early modern theatre to illustrate the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (1755 or 1757 – 1804) and the American Revolution. Hamilton has become a cultural phenomenon, winning 11 Tony awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and setting records for ticket sales. Hamilton has led artists and academics to discover Shakespearean qualities that have been given new life through hip-hop.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play Hamilton uses hip-hop and early modern theatre to illustrate the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.

Like Shakespeare, Lin-Manuel Miranda tells the history of his nation and uses the common tongue to illustrate it to the average audience. Hip-hop is currently a dominant genre in music and has given a voice to historically underrepresented minority communities. Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director at New York City’s Public Theater, explains that like Shakespeare, Miranda takes the “language of the people” and raises it to create art. “In Shakespeare’s case, he elevated it to iambic pentameter. In Lin-Manuel’s 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.”3 Shakespeare made history easier to understand and used the common tongue throughout his plays. Ross Williams believes that Miranda has done “the same thing with cultural intersections.”3

In the Hamilton song “Take a Break,” Miranda alludes to Shakespeare by quoting Macbeth:

My dearest, Angelica
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.”
I trust you’ll understand the reference to
Another Scottish tragedy without my having to name the play.

The phrase “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day” would be obvious to many Shakespeare theatergoers. However, these were not the original lyrics. The following are the original lyrics to “Take a Break” that were later removed because less frequent theatergoers were less likely to get the nod to Macbeth:

My dearest, Angelica
They’ve tied me to a stake I cannot fly
But bear-like, I must fight the course.
I trust you’ll understand the reference to another
Scottish tragedy.

The lyrics from Macbeth are “They’ve tied me to a stake, I cannot fly, But bear-like, I must fight the course.” Lin-Manuel Miranda cares about the audience’s understanding of the “cultural intersections,” and the removal of the original lyrics were due to the more obscure reference to Macbeth. He uses the common tongue — like Shakespeare did — with this change of lyrics and makes it easier for the average person to understand the reference.

macbethLin-Manuel Miranda creates an epic in Hamilton, as Shakespeare does with his historical plays. According to Ross Williams, the Producing Artistic Director at the NY Shakespeare Exchange, Hamilton still maintains its intimacy and “Lin never shied away from the size of the story.”3  This is because the characters are easy to understand, despite the enormity of the work. Dr. James Shapiro, English and comparative literature professor at Columbia University, explains that “like Shakespeare, [Lin-Manuel Miranda] understood that this kind of historical sweep has to focus on the experience of an individual and work outward from there.”3  The purpose behind the epics is for Shakespeare and Miranda to look at the historical origins of the political issues of England and America, respectively. Shapiro makes this connection to Shakespeare when explaining the purpose behind Hamilton: “Lin’s looking for how we became who we are, and what are the stories we now tell about ourselves, about race, about our political institutions, about how they came to be.”3

The many Shakespearean qualities found in the hip-hop-infused Hamilton demonstrate the relevance of early modern literature today. Literature wants to understand stories by telling them. With stories like Hamilton, the possibilities of literature are infinite.

Watch the PBS special of Hamilton’s America here.

References:

  1. Beggs, A. (2015, November 02). Read Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Genius Annotations for Hamilton. Retrieved November 09, 2016, from http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/11/hamilton-lyrics-genius-lin-manuel-miranda
  2. Evan, S. (2015, July 27). AMERICAN THEATRE | How ‘Hamilton’ Found Its Groove. Retrieved November 9, 2016, from http://www.americantheatre.org/2015/07/27/how-hamilton-found-its-groove/
  3. Major, M. (2016, October 4). “Yay, Hamlet!”: Shakespeare’s Influence on Lin-Manuel Miranda. Retrieved November 09, 2016, from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/lin-manuel-miranda-bard-era/5437/
  4. Ruggieri, M. (2016, February 2). ‘Hamilton’ tour will play Atlanta | Atlanta Music Scene with Melissa Ruggieri. Retrieved November 09, 2016, from http://music.blog.ajc.com/2016/02/01/hamilton-tour-will-play-atlanta/
  5. Seiss, K. (2013, April 26). BJU Classic Players to bring Macbeth to life. Retrieved November 09, 2016, from http://www.collegianonline.com/2013/04/26/bju-classic-players-to-bring-macbeth-to-life/

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