31 October 2016 ¦ Bradley Copper
Virgil’s Aeneid was an epic poem composed from 29-19 BC. It describes the mythological journey of Trojan hero Aeneas and his founding of Rome, and was immediately placed at the centre of education in the early Roman Empire. Hamilton: An American Musical, a show about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution (1765-83), has with similar speed entered classrooms across the United States in the year since its Broadway debut. In his poem, Virgil lauds Emperor Augustus, to whom he performed parts of it; Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man behind Hamilton, sang an early version of its first song at a White House Poetry Jam in 2009. In fact, it’s difficult to find higher praise for the musical than from the White House: recently Michelle Obama called it “a musical about the miracle that is America” (70th). Rarely do literary works get so warm an imperial reception, so what may we make of this anecdotal connection between Hamilton and the classical epic?
Firstly, they also share literary tropes: the Aeneid and the two Homeric epics it was based on, the Iliad and the Odyssey, have in Hamilton a contemporary torchbearer for many of their ‘epic conventions’. Take Hamilton’s opening number, for example, ‘Alexander Hamilton’. Epic poems routinely begin with the statement of a theme; so too does Hamilton: “How does a bastard orphan … grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” Similarly, when we first see Aeneas in the Aeneid, he is battling a storm on his way to found his ancestors’ destined home (5); Hamilton’s introduction sees him “on the bow of a ship heading for a new land”. Hamilton also begins in medias res like an epic should, its titular character arriving in the revolutionary ferment of New York. And let’s not forget all this is sung, too, accompanied with music as classical epics would have been. We even get an epic epithet within the show’s first thirty seconds: Hamilton is the “ten dollar founding father”.
Homer’s martial backdrop is the Trojan War; Virgil’s is Aeneas’s conquest of Latium. Miranda likewise uses the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) as the setting for the patriarchal friendships and rivalries of the Founding Fathers. He shows off the Battle of Yorktown (1781) alongside three duels that mimic the famous instances of single combat Homer and Virgil both employ. The musical’s attention switches between Hamilton and rival Founding Father Aaron Burr in much the same way Homer follows the Greek Achilles and then the Trojan Hector. I now find it difficult not to think of Achilles’s and Hector’s famous confrontation around the walls of Troy when listening to the Burr-Hamilton duel, the musical’s climax. Hamilton’s finale, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’ has its characters wonder what it means to act with historical significance and thus leave a legacy. Such concerns are more than comparable to the kleos, the ‘heroic reputation’, that drives Homer’s characters and defines Homeric culture.
It’s not only specific literary techniques that make an epic, though, and Miranda rewrites America’s founding with a contemporary audience in mind. This is a reflection of the Aeneid’s use of Rome’s mythological past to justify the new Augustan regime that followed Antony’s Civil War (32-30 BC). This sort of work is often called a ‘National Epic’, and the musical’s name advertises Miranda’s experiment in nation defining: “Hamilton: An American Musical”. Hamilton’s conceit is in its Founding Fathers being played by ethnic minority actors. The musical’s tone is unironically epic throughout, and Hamilton and Co.’s revolutionary struggle stands for that of racial minorities in contemporary America. Of course, not every epic convention or idea gets a place in Hamilton. There are no stock phrases, no catalogues and no genealogies, no epic similes—but with every listening I notice more examples of Miranda’s ‘epicness’. There’s something undoubtedly epic in Hamilton’s musings on a “death [that] feels more like a memory”, for instance (‘My Shot’), and Miranda’s equally epic treatment of women is another post altogether!
Some may say these techniques are not even intentional on Miranda’s part, difficult though they are to explain away. But they nevertheless demonstrate the grand poetic tradition and ambition beneath Hamilton’s reworking of revolutionary America. When Virgil composed his own national mythology, he was reacting to the catastrophe of civil war. Although Miranda has no military conflict to douse, the problems he sees with contemporary America are clear from the show itself: partisanism, corruption, opportunism, extremism, slavery, and at the heart of all these, economic dysfunction. Hamilton himself presents this transhistorical problem: “We need to handle our financial situation / Are we a nation of states? What’s the state of our nation?” (‘My Shot’) This lyric invokes the conflict and gridlock of post-Great Recession America. When thinking about Hamilton as the continuation of a nation-defining epic tradition, it’s easier to see why Miranda picked the revolutionary architect of his country’s financial system, the United States’ first Treasury Secretary, for his hero.
The 70th Annual Tony Awards. CBS. 12 June 2016. Television.
Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording). Atlantic, 2015. Apple Music. 1 Oct 2016.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Martin Hammond. London, Penguin: 1987. Print.
Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. David West. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Bradley graduated from the University of York in 2015 and is currently studying an MSc in United States Literature at the University of Edinburgh. He is particularly interested in the ‘American Epic’. Bradley is from Romford, Essex, and in his free time enjoys politics, video games, and cooking.
Edited by Adam Clay, Alice de Galzain, and Chienwei Pan