A playwright in his mid-30s wants to pen an epic tale of ambition, authority, and power. He turns to his nation’s history, to characters familiar to his audience from school and legend. He performs a kind of magic trick: shrinking his characters down to human size while also, by lending them his own considerable verbal gifts, enlarging them to mythic proportions. The writer casts himself in the show, and it plays to commentators as a kind of shadow autobiography, a show of clear artistic ambition that is also about ambition, centered on a protagonist who cannot stop thinking about how history will perceive him.
This is, of course, the story of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton. But it is also the story of Henry IV, Part 1, Shakespeare’s brilliant retelling of the rise of Prince Hal, who would go on to become King Henry V, the “good Christian King” most famous (again, thanks in part to Shakespeare) for his improbable victory over France at the Battle of Agincourt. Written around 1597, 1 Henry IV, as it’s properly called, kicked off a shocking run of plays on Shakespeare’s part. Over the next four years, he would write, produce, and act in a half-dozen stone masterpieces: Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Hamlet.
Recently, a debate between historians and fans about Hamilton’s approach to history, and thus its meaning, has bubbled up into the popular consciousness. Hamilton is a truly great work, brilliantly constructed and important, but lost at times in the stories about Hamilton-the-phenomenon—a discussion of what Hamilton represents—is a real inquiry into what Hamilton means, what choices Hamilton is making, and how those choices reveal its attitude towards politics, authority, history, and power. Looking at Hamilton through the lens of 1 Henry IV puts these choices in stark relief, revealing ways in which both Hamilton and 1 Henry IV avoid simple hagiography, and the ways in which the musical has a far more optimistic view of power than Shakespeare’s.
1 Henry IV and Hamilton both use doubling to explore their central themes. In 1 Henry IV, Prince Hal’s adversary is Henry Percy, called Hotspur, “a son who is the theme of Honor’s tongue,” in contrast to Hal, who spends all day partying and all night robbing with his best friend, the disgraced knight Sir John Falstaff. Shakespeare went so far as to change the ages of his two Henrys to make the parallel sharper, and to have Hal’s father openly wish, “that it could be proved/ That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged/ In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,” so he could be Hotspur’s father instead.
What Hal knows, however, and Hotspur does not, is that “honor” is a kind of performance. Hotspur is incapable of adapting contextually to the situations in which he finds himself. When the king insults him, he fires angrily back at him because his honor is wounded. He alienates a key ally by mocking him for being a wizard instead of a soldier. He’s unable to stop thinking of the thrill of battle, even when his wife beckons him to her bed. His inability to modulate flows from his mistaken belief that honor is an attribute. You either have it or you don’t. Because of this, he is easily manipulated by his father and uncle (who he believes have honor), and vastly underestimates King Henry IV and his son (who he believes do not).
The King and Hal both understand that honor is not a quality of character. It is, rather, a public performance of masculine virtue. When the king upbraids his son for his party-boy ways, the substance of his scolding centers largely on critiquing Hal’s performance in the role of heir to the throne. As Henry IV explains, back before he usurped Richard II and became king, “By being seldom seen, I could not stir/ But like a comet I was wondered at.” Henry IV discusses himself in actor’s terms, even discussing his regal bearing as a costume: “And then I stole all courtesy from heaven/ And dressed myself in such humility/ That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts.”
Often, this scene—much like the Henriad in general—is read as a step in Hal’s transformation from feckless youth to virtuous king. This is the Hal we glimpse in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, and it is also how I was taught 1 Henry IV in high school. Yet this essentially heroic view of Hal is belied by the text itself. Hal becomes a great leader and king because he is a brilliant performer. He even promises his father that his reformation will come in combat when he wears “a bloody mask/ Which, washed away, shall scour my shame with it.” In his lone soliloquy in the play, which arrives minutes after we first meet him in Act 1, he explicitly declares his wastrel ways a strategic show for the public, saying of his offstage drunkard friends:
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
As the scholar Tony Tanner notes in Prefaces to Shakespeare, this soliloquy has been interpreted myriad ways but “it is—I think—unarguably unpleasant, and if it is so for us it is simply calumny to think it wasn’t for Shakespeare.” If we do find any part of it admirable, it is in how Hal has such firm and constant control over the narrative of himself. Hal is able to build and maintain his legacy because all he cares about is his performance. He doesn’t care about his friends (he exiles one and hangs another in later plays), and he doesn’t care about principle (the war he fights in Henry V is a cynical PR move urged on him by his dying father). The Henriad presents us with a shockingly jaundiced picture of the ancestor of the queen it was performed in front of, and a troubling view of power: Perhaps, Shakespeare speculated, authority and humanity are mutually exclusive. Hotspur is too human to be king, too full of a constant self that Hal completely lacks. He, like Richard II before him, is doomed from the start by his own intemperate refusal to modulate his performance.
In Hamilton, it is Alexander who is often too hot-headed, too quick to express himself, too unwilling to follow his double Aaron Burr’s advice that he “talk less, smile more” as he builds his legacy. Yet Alexander is also a brilliant performer, largely through the written word, which he tells us has gotten him “out of hell” and into the revolution, given him a wife and the command of a new vast financial system. His lexical genius is bolstered by something Prince Hal for the most part lacks: chutzpah.
Hamilton’s double is Aaron Burr. Both are orphans. Both feel the weight of history on their shoulders. Both will fight in the Revolutionary War, become fathers, enter politics. Most importantly, both desire a legacy, and thus are filled with an unquenchable ambition to achieve.
Hamilton and Burr’s primary difference is over tactics, not objectives. Aaron Burr is all restraint, terrified of giving offense to anyone. When, during their first meeting, Hamilton says to Burr that he’s been looking for him, Burr responds, “I’m getting nervous.” Hamilton is all audacity, incapable of stopping himself from “talking too loud.” Hamilton will risk everything—including his life—on huge gambits, publicly speaking out for independence and stealing a cannon from the British.
Despite its repeated refrain of “if you stand for nothing Burr, what will you fall for?” Hamilton does not exactly give us a Hamilton of authentic principle and a Burr of canny diplomatic manipulation. The show often underlines that Alexander’s stated beliefs are convenient and self-serving. While in public he champions independence, privately he admits to the audience that, “as a kid in the Caribbean I wished for a war, I knew that I was poor, I knew it was the only way to rise up.”
It’s not only war that will help Alexander build a legacy, of course—it’s also making a good marriage despite being penniless. Again, Hamilton has doubts about Alexander’s sincerity from the get-go. When, right before meeting the wealthy Schuylers, Burr teasingly tells Alexander, “If you can marry a sister, you’re rich, son.” Alexander replies with a cocksure, “Is it a question of if, Burr, or which one?” In the song “Satisfied,” Angelica Schuyler tells us she immediately clocked Alexander, could tell that “he’s penniless, he’s flying by the seat of his pants,” and deflected his attention onto her younger sister.
Act 1 is all about the audacity with which Alexander chases glory, an audacity that matches the violent chaos of war and the chaotic yearnings of youth. Act 2, which explores the political maneuverings amongst Hamilton and his rivals in the early days of the Union, is less about his audacity and more about the ruthlessness of Alexander’s particular brand of pragmatism. As Hamilton explains in “The Room Where It Happens,” “When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game. But you don’t get a win unless you playin’ the game.”
The show’s attitude toward this political horse-trading is that it is both unpleasant and inevitable, perhaps even necessary. Hamilton is at his least likable in this moment, yet at the same time, as the chorus and Burr sing in the same song:
CHORUS: The art of the compromise—
BURR: Hold your nose and close your eyes.
CHORUS: We want our leaders to save the day—
BURR: We don’t get a say in what they trade away.
The only real downside to shadowy backroom deals—particularly if you get more than you give and you want what you got—is that a naïve public dislikes them. “The Room Where It Happens” is both cynical and, for Burr, an epiphany. If the world is governed in secret in smoke-filled back rooms and if you, as Hamilton does, want to make something that’s gonna outlive you, you have to do what it takes to be in that room.
It’s moments like these that have led to the identification of the show with a kind of practical center-left neoliberalism represented first by Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton. If there’s more than a little of Bill Clinton’s shapeshifting charms to Hal in 1 Henry IV, there’s more than a little of his wife’s “progressive pragmatism” to Alexander. And, indeed, Act 2 can be read as a paean to an approach to politics (and life) that invests in the process, with all its oleaginous maneuverings, in order to eke out victories.
Unlike the Henriad where the consequences of Prince Hal’s similar maneuverings are frequently highlighted (and, in the case of Falstaff, invented), Hamilton pays the consequences of pragmatism short shrift. The chief downside of the founding fathers’ “art of the compromise,” of course, was the institutional, legal, and constitutional entrenchment of slavery. The musical isn’t less brilliant because of its clear choices about what to include and not. Shakespeare’s histories contain huge inventions and changes, and the events of 1 Henry IV were less than 200 years old at the time of its premiere. Still, one could imagine a version of the musical in which Alexander’s real-life disinterest in abolition was dramatized, where our hero is approached to do something about slavery and demurs because he has other priorities. Or a version of the show that still contained the cut Cabinet battle about slavery. Or mentioned that Hercules Mulligan and George Washington owned them. (The recent PBS documentary about Hamilton takes Christopher Jackson, the actor who originally played Washington in the show, to Mount Vernon to grapple with that ugly truth in a way the musical never does.)
And look where these two showmen wind up. Hal’s canny performances lead to greater and greater glory; Alexander’s fragile, enormous ego and his monomaniacal focus on his legacy destroy him. Yet in Hamilton, what could be a tragedy is given a redemptive ending. Thanks to Alexander’s wife and sister-in-law, the legacy he fought so hard to build survives to be rediscovered in the 21st century and staged before you in the musical you’ve just finished watching. Before this can happen, in his very last moments on Earth, Alexander contemplates the themes of his life and the show about him:
Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me
1 Henry IV has a similar late-in-the-show contemplation of its entwined themes of honor and performance, but it comes from Sir John Falstaff. Discussing honor with the audience on the eve of battle, Falstaff asks, “Can honor set a leg? No. Or an arm? No…. What is honor? A word. What is in that word `honor’? Air… Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday.” A few scenes later, after faking his own death to avoid the real thing, Falstaff declares that “the better part of valor is discretion,” a line so ahead of its time that today we repeat it as conventional wisdom, not realizing it’s a perversion of how bravery is supposed to work.
Perhaps 1 Henry IV’s and Hamilton’s differing perspectives on authority and the virtues on which it claims to rest come from their political contexts. Shakespeare wrote for an audience of citizens unable to participate in their own governance. Lin-Manuel Miranda writes for a time in which more and more citizens doubt their participation counts, and doubt the process by which they are governed, in part because they feel so far from the room where it happens. Today we worry whether the process of American Democracy can even function, let alone create good in this world, and Hamilton’s answer to these questions—a resounding yes we can—is a key component of its success. Had Miranda written a show about the founding fathers as cynical as 1 Henry IV, it’s hard to imagine it surviving the harsh realities of American capitalism, Alexander Hamilton’s second greatest legacy after the musical that bears his name.
Yet Shakespeare was able to write, produce, and stage his history plays, with their jaundiced view of the queen’s most vaunted ancestor, at a time of official censorship, when all plays had to be submitted to the Master of the Revels who could amend or ban plays outright at his discretion. Perhaps Shakespeare had more than a little of Alexander’s chutzpah, or perhaps, for all our vaunted freedoms, we are voting with our dollars for the myths we need most. Perhaps our artists can be most critical when attacking systems in which audiences already know they cannot participate. When we believe it’s possible to enter the room where it happens—if an orphan immigrant can do it, why not me?—we’re less willing to brook the notion that the room’s doors might be barred from the inside.
Check out this great listen on Audible.com. This play introduces Shakespeare's greatest comedic character, the dissolute knight Sir John Falstaff. While King Henry's England is threatened by rebellion, the king's scapegrace son Hal haunts the taverns of London, his companions a crew of rogues and...