Lin-Manuel Miranda and William Shakespeare

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 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.

Historian, Heal Thyself

I haven’t had enough time to post here in a long while, and I still don’t, but the pushback that the musical “Hamilton” is getting — finally! — from some historians and critics inspires thoughts that won’t fit into 140 characters. I’ve been obsessively tracking and tweeting dissent from aspects of the show, beginning with Ishmael Reed’s compelling article from August, and more recently a illuminating piece by Lyra D. Monteiro, a history professor at Rutgers, advanced further in her interview; as well as in a Slate piece covering the matter.

Last week, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf weighed in. And I was happy today to see the whole thing covered, on the front page no less, in the New York Times.

I should say that having spent nearly fifteen years trying, like a flea hurling itself repeatedly against a battleship, to dent the grand progress of the Hamilton industry, I’ve found the show’s reception literally impossible to respond to. I know I wasn’t getting anywhere anyway, but come on: this?! Mostly I’ve just been shaking my head in rueful wonderment.

And I’ve mulled over the soundtrack album. Unlike many founding-era history people who have responded to the show’s music, mood, and popularity with a degree of joy I can only call giddy, I just felt tired on hearing that first reference to throwing away the shot, knowing where it would have to lead. That’s just me, I know: my exhaustion has more to do with my long relationship to Hamilton, and to those who would promote his legacy by misconstruing everything he did, than with the show itself. I do get why the music is exciting — well, the hiphop is, with seriously clever rhyming and at times hilarious attitude; not so much for me the more conventional musical-theater songs — and why the whole thing is theatrically fresh, energetic, unexpected.

In the end, though, I can only view the show and its wildly positive reception as springboarding us from founder chic, which made it hard enough to confront our origins, to founder twee. I’ve been living too long in a founding world fraught with radically other impulses than those presented with such imaginative boldness by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” For all of the racial reversals (Monteiro is especially good on that), and in fact largely because of them, the show is breathing thrilling new life into falsehoods long embraced by our financial and political establishments regarding our national origins. It’s no shock to me that those establishments have taken up the show with such boundless enthusiasm.

More fascinating — disconcerting, really — is how hard some academic historians have fallen. These are the people who really know and teach the period, and they’ve surprised me by their unabashed love of the show. (A smart discussion, mainly but not entirely among historians who like the show, appeared back in August at the estimable Junto blog — happy to see those guys getting their due in today’s Times.)  For one thing, yes, these historians must know that Hamilton wasn’t really an abolitionist, but also the entire Hamilton-vs-Jefferson binary is not only so banal and unnuanced but also in many ways just so wrongheaded that while it’s fine (with me) for a theatrical event seeking broad popularity to lean on that oversimplification, it’s annoying (to me) to see professional historians so happy to have it dramatized.

Now, per today’s Times piece, come the critical historians. Hallelujah. And yet I’m finding some of their commentary unsettling too. While rightly pointing to the show’s historical inaccuracy and misleading sentimentality regarding the nation’s origins, they largely ignore the big historical tradition on which the show’s attitudes are based. It’s not Lin-Manuel Miranda who first made Hamilton an abolitionist, for example: Hamilton’s biographers have been promoting that myth for generations; Ron Chernow is only the most recent.

[UPDATE: And while I disagree with the comment below saying the show doesn’t call Hamilton an abolitionist, I think the commenter makes a good point: the show itself doesn’t make such a huge deal out of the so-called abolitionism. It’s more often been those reflecting on the show who call Hamilton an abolitionist. This is typical: “Miranda makes much of Hamilton’s abolitionism, coming as he [sic] did from the West Indies, where the brutality of slavery was a constant, daily tableau.” (  I’m pretty sure the idea that Hamilton became anti-slavery because the institution’s horrors were seared on his brain in the Caribbean has no actual source; biographers have been swapping it around forever, citing one another.]

Miranda would have had to dig deeply and counterintuitively to question the abolitionism , and that process would assign him a job other than the one he has. It’s entirely fair for non-historians to expect to be able to rely on lavishly praised history books intended for general readers. And yet the expectation turns out to be misguided.

I can relate. That’s where I started. I’m not a professional historian either. My job, as I came to assign it to myself, turned out to be different from Miranda’s, but when I started digging into Hamilton, I was amazed to find no secondary source refuting the abolitionism (since then, I have) and no primary evidence supporting it. What I learned, over many mind-bending sessions in the library: you can construct Hamilton as an “uncompromising abolitionist” (Chernow) only by skipping around in the Hamilton-Laurens exchanges on recruiting black soldiers, overstating the importance of Hamilton’s membership in the Manumission Society, ignoring references in the correspondence to his (evidently relatively few) slave purchases, defining the three-fifths clause as something an abolitionist wouldn’t view as a compromise, and redefining the word “abolition.” (More on that here and here.)

And it wasn’t Miranda who came up with Hamilton as a model for and enabler of exceptionally American opportunities for upward social mobility. That’s from Chernow, Richard Brookhiser, David Brooks, the New York Historical Society Hamilton exhibit, the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, and elsewhere. It’s got nothing to do with what Hamilton was trying to accomplish for the United States (time-space considerations force me to link anyone interested in that subject to this [long!] essay of mine from 2008).

Maybe it’s partly that historians don’t look on popular biography as history, so they haven’t bothered to criticize the Chernow and Brookhiser presentations of Hamilton. That reflects a bigger and to me more serious issue in founding-era historiography: well-known historians just haven’t been especially interested in Hamiltonian finance (exceptions are E.J. Ferguson [UPDATE: and Terry Bouton] and Elkins-McKitrick). Intellectuals prefer other intellectuals, and Jefferson and Madison cast themselves as intellectuals, despite being not one whit smarter than Hamilton (for the historiography nerd, and I use the singular advisedly, more on that here.)  I think of Hamilton as, with Washington, the most important of the founders because of what he did, not what he thought, in a field many historians say they think is important but don’t really like parsing, economics and finance. It’s not clear to me that a lot of serious historians have a good grasp on Hamilton’s real relationship to the war debt, for example.

So it’s not just Miranda, and it’s not just Chernow and the other Hamilton biographers, who have contributed to misleading us as to what actually happened during the founding. A paucity of critical history regarding Hamiltonian finance and the connections between that project and the man’s political career has left journalists who want to write about the facts behind the show with few places to turn but Chernow, Brookhiser, et al. Matt Yglesias, undertaking to fill us in on the background of one of the show’s songs, “Cabinet Battle, #1” rehashes a description familiar from Brookhiser regarding the Madison-Hamilton debate over funding and assumption. It’s a view that the few who really look into these things have taken seriously since Ferguson, in The Power of the Purse (1961), showed that it made no sense. If historians had weighed in critically when Chernow and Brookhiser first published, public understanding might be different now.

That the show is so overwhelmingly exciting and popular has historians waking up. But the historiography of bad Hamilton studies — a long tradition of miseducation, in the interest of establishment ends — still doesn’t seem to draw their interest.

Maybe it will. The Gilder-Lehrman Institute — mightiest underpinning of the Hamilton industry for many years now — sees no bright line between the serious scholarship it funds so lavishly across a range of American history subjects and ventures like “Hamilton.” The Institute has, according to the Times today, “created a curriculum for 20,000 low-income New York City public school students who will be able to see the musical, in a program funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and subsidized by the show.” It’s worth historians’ asking what ends that educational mission is intended to serve. I think it’s clear I hold no brief for the show, but I wish historians analyzing its failings would also look at their profession’s failings when it comes to public understanding of the realpolitik of the founding period.