Twice now I’ve been exposed to the notion that criticizing the musical “Hamilton” for historical inaccuracy is like criticizing Shakespeare’s history plays for 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 try to criticize Shakespeare on that basis, because 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 is a natural hook when Miranda’s fans are defending the musical against what they take to be criticism of the show’s historical inaccuracy. That’s 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, even tortured 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 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 that’s presented, back here in our universe, by the play called Julius Caesar.
And I think that assertion achieves, in its revealing way, a gibbering meaninglessness only partially masked by sober-sounding terms like “matters rather little” and “just appreciation.” 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 might be, oh, I don’t know, maybe the events involving the death of a guy named Julius Caesar?
That’s where Shakespeare looked. So 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 them, to reflect on Shakespeare’s 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. That’s what I was trying, pointlessly, to point out. Differences between Shakespeare and Miranda aside, the difference in how scholars defending the musical think about Shakespeare and Miranda devolves on their thinkers’ blithe inattention to Miranda’s sources.
And that difference points to an even more important difference. Continue reading