At least twice now I’ve been exposed to the notion that criticizing the musical “Hamilton” for its historical tendentiousness is like criticizing Shakespeare’s history plays for their historical inaccuracy, with the presumption — so obvious, the implication goes, that it’s not even worth stating, let alone arguing — that only a cluck would attempt to criticize Shakespeare on that basis, because, well, Shakespeare. The historian R.B. Bernstein invoked the Bard in this context when moderating a panel discussion at a conference of historians. Martha C. Nussbaum, the scholar of philosophy, law, and government, did so too when declining to respond to my argument, editorially solicited, that an uncritical participation in emphasizing the American founders’ reading and thinking, at the expense of examining their action, leads ironically yet ineluctably to acceptance and even celebration, in Nussbaum’s Boston Review essay “Hamilton’s Choice,” of the hagiographic history that served as inspiration for the musical.
This Miranda-Shakespeare comparison seems a natural hook when Miranda’s fans are defending the musical against what they take to be criticism of the show’s historical inaccuracy, because Shakespeare’s famous history plays, from Julius Caesar to the Wars of the Roses cycle and beyond, aren’t history either. Nussbaum puts the comparison in this strange way:
. . . literal veracity matters rather little [in the Hamilton musical], no more than it matters to a just appreciation of Shakespeare’s political ideas that he may have based too much on Plutarch and not studied a wider range of historical sources for ancient Rome. There are flaws in Shakespeare’s political understanding of monarchy and its relationship to the populace, and sometimes these do show up in a one-sided use of his source materials, particularly in Julius Caesar, where he gives Cicero and the republicans short shrift. But one could have seen those flaws had the play been a total fiction, since his disturbing ideas about the inevitable venality of the people are evident from the play alone.
Nussbaum seems to be saying that, in an alternate universe in which the play Julius Caesar lacks any reference to specific historical events (so probably isn’t titled Julius Caesar?), we’d still be able to see the flaws, as Nussbaum calls them, in the view of monarchy and populace presented, back here in our universe, by the play called Julius Caesar. I think that assertion achieves, in a revealing way, meaninglessness. It’s absurd to imagine a Shakespearean view of monarchy and populace, flawed or otherwise, independent of actual Shakespeare works; it’s absurd to imagine any Shakespeare history play independent of that play’s relationship to specific historical narratives. In considering how such issues develop in Julius Caesar, a handy place to look would be the events involving the death of Julius Caesar. That’s where Shakespeare looked, and it seems to me that it actually is important, if not, necessarily, to enjoying a production of one of the plays, then to any critically informed appreciation of Shakespeare, to reflect on his biases regarding democracy and monarchy — I lack the apodictic certainty to label them flaws — in part by considering his relationship to sources.
Nussbaum, for one, has done exactly that. Her close consideration of Shakespeare’s sources is reflected in the quotation above. Yet regarding the Hamilton musical, she hasn’t considered sources, as I tried to point out. That difference between Shakespeare and Miranda, in the context of scholarly thinkers’ defense of the musical, points to a larger and more important difference.
It’s worth noting, on the way to that difference, that at least two penetrating people, Shaw and Tolstoy, came to the conclusion that Shakespeare’s plays stink. It really is possible to criticize Shakespeare’s history.
For me, however, the history plays, especially the cycle represented by Richard II, Henry IV 1 and 2, and Henry V, have served as a nearly lifelong, ever-developing lesson in the relationship of history and politics to the dramatic and narrative arts. Richard III too: long before I ever considered writing about history, I loved the villainous Duke of Gloucester. Under the influence, putting it mildly, of Barbara Garson’s “Macbird!” at fourteen I wrote a full-scale parody of R III, making Richard Nixon, then in his first term, the main character. In college, I studied the play, and others, with the great poet and Shakespeare scholar David Young; in my twenties, I taught it to high school students; I’ve read it again and again.
It’s only recently, by contrast, that I’ve given any real consideration to Henry VI 1,2, and 3. Generally thought to lack the blend of startling language and psychological and political insight that begins with R III and embraces H. IV-V, the H VI triptych is early work (set, obviously, later than the stronger batch); some of it wasn’t written by Shakespeare; the parts that probably are Shakespeare have far less originality, both poetically and psychologically, than his mature work. And yet lately H VI has finally begun getting some respect. Narratively, this early-career, three-part “Henriad” leads straight into the climax of Richard III, where Shakespeare gets his first real grasp on the history play, and it’s possible to see the quartet as of-a-piece, if a bumpy piece. The weak religious enthusiast Henry VI isn’t naively done at all, and the political infighting and military action are at times super-intense. Anyway, even Shakespeare’s best history plays lack unity of action. I’m now engaged, all too desultorily, in what’s known these days as a radical adaptation of some of that material. We shall see.
But the thing about the entire Wars of the Roses cycle is that there’s not much in the source material that anybody today would call legitimate history. No scholar writing about the period could possibly rely on Holinshed’s Chronicles the way Shakespeare did, and Nussbaum’s vision of a Shakespeare who made, as we might accuse a modern historian of making, “one-sided use of his source materials” doesn’t sound Shakespearean to me. I think Shakespeare, like Miranda, just grabbed up the hottest, most readily available narrative and got busy dramatizing. For Shakespeare, as for Miranda, one-sidedness doesn’t come up, because as with Miranda, one-sidedness is the condition under which the show exists at all. Shakespeare was writing a grand patriotic drama, leading to the foregone conclusion that the reign of Elizabeth I, and then the reign of James I, represents the salvation of the sceptered isle. Along the way, the playwright made many stunning moves that bring indelible irony to the dire cycles of politics; to leadership and its failings; to public unrest; to many kinds of violence, including the oppression of women; to kingship itself; to history itself.
That’s what lasts, in large part because the language was and remains original. Still, there’s no question about the Wars of the Roses plays’ pretext: enthusiastic celebration of Tudor emergence as national resolution and repair.
So Shakespeare and Miranda are indeed similar in the sense that both are involved in a process of nationalistic mythmaking. I think that’s what the defenders are suggesting, and if those like Bernstein and Nussbaum, invoking Shakespeare to defend Miranda against some supposed charge of failing some supposed requirement for “literal veracity,” mean to say that, when it comes to nationalistic horseshit, the 21st century playwright is only shoveling it on as thick as the 16th-17th century playwright did, they get no argument from me.
But the important similarities and differences lie not in Miranda and Shakespeare. They lie in the modern audience’s relationship to history, nationalism, and mythmaking, compared with that of Shakespeare’s audience. One way to look at that difference has to do with considering the parts of Shakespeare we tend to admire today versus the parts we ignore or look away from or accept with a shrug (Nussbaum might call them reflections of a flawed understanding). A glaring example is the long tableau vivant dumbshow in Macbeth, usually cut from modern productions, where the witches demonstrate that the line of Banquo’s descendents arrives at the James VI of Scotland who became James I of England, who was king when Macbeth was first performed. To make that move, Shakespeare had to reverse his source material, already unreliable enough. The Banquo of Holinshed’s history, or legend, conspired with Macbeth in regicide. Shakespeare made Banquo, as a royal ancestor, a good guy killed by Macbeth.
Flattering the powers that be is something anyone in Shakespeare’s profession in Elizabethan and Jacobean England had to do, and given Shakespeare’s evident regard for order and hierarchy, it might be misleading, romantic, and “presentist” to presume he did so only grudgingly. It doesn’t matter. That stuff’s not the stuff we admire Shakespeare for. This post would go on too long if I considered some of the aesthetically far better stuff than the Banquo dumbshow that also reflects this issue. I’d include something as rhetorically brilliant as the St. Crsipin’s Day speech in H V, something as pro forma as Richmond’s concluding remarks in R III, something as scabrous as the portrait of Joan in H VI 1. . . .
Miranda’s “Hamilton” flatters the powers that be too, and does so by distorting history. To me, that’s pretty much all, in a notably fresh, creative, and entertaining way, it does, whereas Shakespeare’s nationalistic hoo-ha is a necessary and inextricable, and in that sense fascinating, component of a vein that goes far deeper than nationalism ever can. Only history will judge whether the net gain from “Hamilton” in insight, character, emotion, irony, and texture will compare to what we get from Shakespeare, but the historians and scholars who resist criticism of the musical’s particular distortions of history, and of the particular work those distortions do, by invoking the national storytelling of the greatest poetic theater artist in English, are glorifying the nation-and-empire Shakespeare, the Shakespeare quoted by semi-informed men who lifted their gin and tonics in country clubs around the world and quoted Kipling in the same weepy breath. The actual artist known as Shakespeare survived and thrived by pleasing the powerful in a cutthroat late-Medieval world of casual cruelty, flamboyant ostentation, mass misery, institutionalized ignorance, holy war, and zero tolerance for those who questioned authority. By invoking Shakespeare in defense of the uses of history in “Hamilton,” the defenders may be saying more about “Hamilton” than they mean.