(Look at where you are / Look at where you started)
- Motifs in Hamilton
- Character Arcs in Hamilton
I claim without reservation that Lin-Manuel Miranda is Shakespeare 2.0. The composer/playwright/actor is heavily inspired by Shakespeare, which is evident in his Pulitzer-Prize Winning Hamilton, a strategically constructed historical tragedy.
What makes Hamilton so great? What is all the fuss—the buzz—about? Miranda’s lyrics and beats themselves are marvels, but it’s how he threads them together through universal themes that gives Hamilton its resounding resonance. (Look at me—I’m not even editing alliteration today.)
Each of the three primary characters in Hamilton has an armature, a theme which progresses through repetition and reversals to give each their own character arc.
While listening to the soundtrack of Hamilton, I took notes on repeated words, phrases, and motifs as I recognized them, thinking the repetition and reversals would be a great theme for a blog post…
After just one listen-through, I had five single-spaced pages of notes.
If you were wondering why I haven’t blogged in a while—it’s because I’ve been trying to decide which motifs to highlight. It’s because after taking my own notes, I’ve spent hours on Genius reading the annotated lyrics.
Obviously this post will be filled with spoilers if you don’t know Alexander Hamilton’s historical fate. I highly recommend listening to the full soundtrack, whether before, during, or after reading the following insights. Do note, however, that the lyrics are explicit and as such are likely not appropriate for children or work.
Motifs in Hamilton
The motif of writing is actually what inspired Miranda to write Hamilton in the first place:
“Hamilton literally wrote a verse to get him off an island — that’s the most hip-hop shit ever. He transcends the struggle, and if you look at your favorite rapper, that’s most likely what they did.” —Lin-Manuel Miranda
Writing punctuates and illustrates the major beats of Hamilton’s life story:
- His writing got him to New York and involved him in the American Revolution— “I wrote my way to revolution,”
- Scored him a wife— “I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell,”
- Secured him a role in the founding of the United States— “I wrote about The Constitution and defended it well” (The Federalist Papers),
- Cost him his career and wife— “Alexander Hamilton had a torrid affair / And he wrote it down right there” (The Reynolds Pamphlet), and finally,
- Led to the duel which would cost him his own life—(Your Obedient Servant)
Miranda makes use of the dramatic “Rule of Three” by showing through variations of duels that Hamilton’s beliefs about death and honor have a beginning, middle, and an end. You might say that the musical has a subplot of duels.
- Laurens versus Lee—Hamilton believes nobody should throw away their shot in a duel.
- Philip versus Eacker—Hamilton believes that honorable people wouldn’t kill (or be killed) in a duel. . . . He’s wrong.
- Hamilton versus Burr—Hamilton embraces what he sees as an honorable death.
Satisfied / Enough
The women in Hamilton portray different variations on the motif of satisfaction. When Hamilton meets Angelica, he’s attracted to her because neither is ever satisfied, which drives them to succeed (“Nonstop”) and to engage with “minds at work” (“The Schuyler Sisters”). Eliza encourages him to be satisfied, with her repetition of what would be “enough.” Maria Reynolds is the femme fatale who forces Hamilton to choose between being satisfied with his wife and falling to temptation. In “It’s Quiet Uptown,” Hamilton repeats the word “enough” three times while asking Eliza for forgiveness.
Silence is applied in a chiastic structure in Hamilton. Chiastic structure is a mirrored symmetry of ideas, with the ending reflecting the beginning. So if you have ideas A, B, and C, followed by a variation of C, a variation of B, and a variation of A, you have chiastic structure. It’s found in ancient literature and even the Harry Potter series of novels.
- A: Hamilton has to “holler just to be heard.”
- B: Hamilton cannot be silenced, even when Burr suggests he “Talk less, smile more.”
- C: Philip changes the melody on the count of seven, adorably ignoring his mother’s teaching. Eliza won’t let Hamilton ignore his son. “My name is Philip, I am a poet.”
- C’: Philip is silenced when he’s shot on the seventh count.
- B’: Hamilton grieves his son: “I never liked the quiet before.”
- A’: Hamilton is silenced when he is killed. He doesn’t sing at all in the finale.
Fatal flaws and foreshadowing
In no particular order, here’s repetition of Hamilton’s fatal flaws, which usually come in the form of warnings and which foreshadow his impending doom. (Hamilton is a classical tragedy)
- Talk less, smile more
- Fools who run their mouths off end up dead
- Keep out of trouble and you double your choices
- If you talk you’re gonna get shot
- Burr, I’d rather be divisive than indecisive, drop the niceties
- I will not equivocate on my opinion, I have always worn it on my sleeve
- Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.
- Don’t do a thing. History will prove him wrong.
- Be true (Eliza’s father to Hamilton)
- Wait for it
- Why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room? Soon that attitude may be your doom!
- Ev’ry proclamation guarantees free ammunition for your enemies!
- Young man, watch your mouth.
Character Arcs in Hamilton
Eliza: Controlling the Narrative
Eliza has no agency when she falls in love with Alexander, “Helpless.” Later, she asks Hamilton to let her “be a part of the narrative.” But in “Burn,” she takes control by “removing herself from the narrative”—a reversal from where she started.
In the epilogue, she takes over Hamilton’s narrative by telling his story.
Eliza’s theme: You can control your own narrative, but history decides whether you’ve created a legacy. And when my time is up / Have I done enough? Will they tell my story?
Aaron Burr: Wait for it
At the beginning of Burr’s arc, his motto is “Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” This motto carries through the song “Wait for It,” but shifts when he decides he’s gotta be “In the Room Where it Happens.” The impetuses that drive him are his conflicts with Hamilton (“How does [Hamilton]” do it? is a constant question of Burr’s) and his desire to be there for both Theodosias (Sr. and Jr.). When Burr has fully changed, he has rejected his philosophies of patience and silence and has adopted Hamilton’s advice to go after what he wants:
Burr: I’m chasing what I want / And you know what?
Burr: I learned that from you.
Burr’s motif is highlighted with the word “wait.” He’s been “lying in wait” all his life to survive. Then finally he jumps on an impulse and challenges Hamilton to a duel (his reversal). But immediately after he shoots, he shouts “Wait!” in regret. His arc, his journey from waiting and having no impact to impulsively ending someone’s life and changing history forever, ends in regret of his fatal mistake.
Burr’s motive also reverses. At the beginning, his motto is “don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” Hamilton criticizes him as having no motive: “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” But when his daughter is born, he has a purpose: “I’m dedicating every day to you.” And he credits his concern for her as the ultimate reason for pulling the trigger on Hamilton: “This man will not make an orphan of my daughter!”
Burr’s theme: You control your actions, and even one mistake can affect who dies, who lives. I am the one thing in life I can control.
Hamilton: My Shot
Hamilton’s motto at the beginning of his arc is “I am not throwing away my shot.” He “will do what it takes to survive.” Though he won’t duel with Lee—because doing so would be going against direct orders—he tells Laurens, “Do not throw away your shot.” But then Hamilton’s ambition, “hunger,” and writing abilities become his fatal flaws: he destroys his political ambitions when he can’t “Say No” Maria Reynolds and writes “The Reynolds Pamphlet.” By the end of his arc, he doesn’t want to fight anymore (“Your Obedient Servant”), disobeys the direct order to “Stay Alive,” and throws away his shot—aiming for the sky—during his duel with Burr, resulting in a martyr-like death.
Hamilton’s theme: I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
I could go on and on about the genius of the repetition in Hamilton. I didn’t even get started on the melodies and harmonies and how they add meaning and subtext!