A few weeks ago, when I was participating in the “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” event at the Alden Theatre, the panel took a question from a man who complained that students today don’t understand Shakespeare because their language skills just aren’t up to the task, that they can’t process the complexities of vocabulary and syntax, and that modern English has degraded in quality and variety.
Now, while I have many problems with the state of modern education, I nonetheless felt compelled to stand up on behalf of my people, the young’uns (never mind that I’m on the verge of no longer sharing a generation with high schoolers). Modern English is no less complex than Shakespeare’s early modern English — in fact, in many ways it’s become more flexible and facile. Students are perfectly capable of using language in elaborate ways. They’re just not used to Shakespeare‘s elaborate ways.
How do I know this? Because the media that modern teenagers consume has linguistic intricacies of its own. Yes, they may text in hieroglyph-like emojis, but the English language is vibrant in the medium closest in modern culture to the playhouse in the 16th-century: their music.
The example that I had at the tip of my tongue, because it’s been so dominant in my brain since fall, was Hamilton.
If you don’t know what Hamilton is — well, it is, empirically, one of the biggest things to happen to theatre in years — perhaps in a generation. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, “the ten dollar Founding Father without a father”, has utterly taken both the theatrical and musical worlds by storm. If you need a primer, the cast performed the opening number during the Grammys last night.
So why, apart from my own obsession with the show, do I draw this parallel?
(Come on — If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you had to suspect that would be the answer).
It’s not just that Manuel is a linguistic genius. It’s that he’s a linguistic genius in many of the same ways that Shakespeare was, and the one I’m going to focus on in this post is the use of rhetoric to create character.
One of the reasons Shakespeare stands above his contemporaries is that he had such a great ear. His characters have individual voices. They don’t all speak in the same patterns, but rather, he defines each speaker by particular quirks and habits — just as we speak in everyday life. Miranda does the same thing.
Take the character of George Washington. This is a man with a clear idea of what needs to be done, and that shows in his rhetoric. He’s prone to anaphora, the repetition of beginnings, both of words and of sounds (alliteration). For example, in “Right-Hand Man”:
We are outgunned
He returns to this same pattern later in “Stay Alive”:
Provoke outrage, outright
Don’t engage, strike by night
Remain relentless till their troops take flight…
Hit ’em quick, get out fast
Stay alive till this horror show is past
He’s also prone to isocolon, parallel structure, in short, simple patterns like the imperatives we see above, and nearly every line in “History Has Its Eyes on You” begins with an “I + [verb]” statement. These rhetorical patterns underscore Washington as someone straightforward, focused, and solid. (Incidentally, the out- prefix has another interesting connection to Shakespeare, as noted in the Oxford English Dictionary: “True compound verbs in out- are those in which the sense of surpassing, exceeding, or beating in some action is conveyed, as in outdo , outlive , outbid , outnumber , outface , and the various extensions of these. These are of later origin: a very few (e.g. outlive, outpass, outrun) appear during the 15th cent.; they increase gradually during the 16th cent. (outproffer = outbid, and outcry, out-eat, outgo, outrhyme, outride, outrow in Palsgrave), and become numerous only c1600, being freely and boldly employed by Shakespeare, who is our earliest authority for many of them, including the curious group typified by ‘to outfrown frowns’, ‘to out-Herod Herod’.”)
The verbiage of Miranda’s Angelica Schuyler, meanwhile, is all over the rhetorical map. She’s brilliant, but with an intense urgency — her mind fires at a million miles an hour, and her speech patterns show it. Take the following example from “Satisfied”:
I remember that night, I just might
Regret that night for the rest of my days
I remember those soldier boys
Tripping over themselves to win our praise
I remember that dreamlike candlelight
Like a dream that you can’t quite place
But Alexander, I’ll never forget the first
Time I saw your face
I have never been the same
Intelligent eyes in a hunger-pang frame
And when you said “Hi,” I forgot my dang name
Set my heart aflame, ev’ry part aflame, this is not a game
There’s so much going on here. First, the “I remember” is anaphora, which makes your brain actually focus more on what happens afterwards. And then in the first stanza it’s combined with mesodiplosis, repetition in the middle, with those “that night”s. But then “dreamlike candlelight like a dream” is antimetabole, a specific form of chiasmus, that A-B-B-A structure. And then we end with some epistrophe, repetition at the end of a phrase, in the “aflame” clauses. And throughout we’re getting this antithesis contrast between the past and present tense in the verbs she uses.
So what you get is this bobbing effect, in and out of reality, in and out of memory, in and out of what was and what could have been. But it still ties up and ties together in the progression (dare I say auxesis?) of the kinds of repetition from beginning to middle to end, because Angelica ultimately has that kind of grip on herself. Her mind may race, but she has control of it.
Her sister Eliza Hamilton nee Schuyler, by contrast, Miranda presents as a natural storyteller. There’s so much parallelism in her words, both within songs:
Tryin’ to catch your eye from the side of the ballroom
Everybody’s dancin’ an the band’s top volume
Grind to the rhythm as we wine and dine
Grab my sister and whisper “Yo, this one’s mine”
My sister made her way across the room to you
And I got nervous thinkin’ “What’s she gonna do?”
She grabbed you by the arm, I’m thinkin I’m through,
Then you look back at me and suddenly I’m helpless!
Two weeks later in the living room, stressin’
My father’s stone-faced while you’re askin’ for his blessin’
I’m dyin’ inside as you wine and dine
And I’m tryin’ not to cry ’cause there’s nothin’
That your mind can’t do
My father makes his way across the room to you
I panic for a second thinkin’ we’re through
But then he shakes your hand and says “Be true”
And you turn back to me, smilin, and I’m helpless!
and across the entire show:
Oh, let me be a part of the narrative [“That Would Be Enough”, Act 1]
I’m erasing myself from the narrative [“Burn”, Act 2]
I put myself back in the narrative [“Who Lives, Who Dies Who Tells Your Story”, Finale]
This creates a sense of romanticism, someone who weaves the narrative even as she’s living it, as well as keying in on Eliza as someone who tries to make sense of things. She thinks more linearly than her frenetic husband. But it also ties in beautifully with one of the show’s ultimate messages: Eliza is the one “who lives, who dies, who tells [Hamilton’s] story”, as the final number gorgeously declares. Of course she is — it’s been there in her rhetoric all along.
You’ll notice that, in all of this, I haven’t actually touched the rhetoric of the character of Hamilton himself. There’s honestly just too much. That would be a small thesis all on its own. Nor have I talked about Lafayette’s journey from barely constructing sentences in English to spitting some of the fastest and most gorgeous chiasmus in the show, or how Miranda uses these rhetorical differences to help the actors playing different characters in each act (Lafayette/Jefferson, Mulligan/Madison, Laurens/Philip, Peggy/Maria) — much the same way that doubling works in Shakespeare. I could spend months dissecting Hamilton‘s rhetoric and still not squeeze it all out, just as I’ve spent that kind of time on Julius Caesar, as I could on any of Shakespeare’s plays, and yet still have so much to explore.
Hamilton is ridiculously popular with exactly the age bracket that our lecture attendee was so concerned about — students whom he presumed have worse language skills than prior generations. My argument is that their skills are every bit as good. Hamilton‘s popularity proves it. They can and do revel in complex patterns and verbal intricacies. Our job as teachers of Shakespeare is just to help them re-tune their ears. Anyone who can understand and enjoy Hamilton can understand and enjoy Shakespeare. Miranda’s patterns have a lot in common with Shakespeare’s, but they’re still configured differently — so we just have to help them use what they already know, what they already do intuitively, in a different way.
ASC Academic Resources Manager
*PS: Why “#YayHamlet”? Here’s why.