Was Shakespeare racist? When reading Othello by William Shakespeare, the only play he wrote where the hero is explicitly black, I truly feel like the Shakespearean student as opposed to the Shakespearean teacher. it’s a play that I find very difficult to get into, and very difficult to understand. Above all, the question I have is whether Othello is a positive or negative portrayal of a black man. So I am going to analyze the play, the prevailing views about race from Shakespeare’s time, and try to draw some conclusions about the play and its creator.
Disclaimer: I don’t advocate trying to speculate about how Shakespeare felt about anything. My real point in this post is to determine if the play Othello and its portrayal of people of color, has merit in today’s society, which is important to establish given the culture in which Shakespeare wrote it.
Part I: Black People And Shakespeare
By our standards, Shakespeare was probably racist. If you look at the ways black people are mentioned in documents of the period, the writers frequently describe black people with an air of otherness and superiority that shows little interest in the humanity of other races. In fact, one reason why the word “moor” is so problematic is that it basically referred to anyone not born in Europe. It could refer to people from Northern Africa, the Middle East, and even parts of Spain. Clearly, Europeans at the time weren’t interested in the particulars of their non-Caucasian neighbors’ culture and herritage.
This is not to say that Shakespeare never knew any black people. Michael Wood in his book In Search Of Shakespeare estimates that there might have been several thousand black people in London alone. City registers mentions not only black people employed in the city, but even some of the first inter-racial marriages. Therefore, the notion of Othello marrying Desdemona would not have been unheard of even in 1601.
As an important note, the black people living in Europe at the time weren’t slaves. The transatlantic slave trade didn’t really get started in and America until the 1650s, and slavery was illegal in England at the time. Wood mentions that there were black dancers, black servants, and other free black people living in and around London (Wood 25). Dr. Matthieu Chapman wrote an excellent thesis back in 2010 about the possibility that some black people might even have been actors in Shakespeare’s company. Furthermore, scholars have wondered for centuries if the Dark Lady of the sonnets was Shakespeare’snon-Caucasian mistress.
In any case, it is likely based on what we know about the growing multiculturalism of England in the 17th century, that Shakespeare knew some black people, and might have worked along side them. Though Shakespeare probably knew black people though, it is impossible to know if they influenced his play Othello.
Though black people were allowed to live and work without bondage, their lives were highly precarious, and far from easy. In 1601, Sir Robert Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s chief counselor, presented a plan to explel all black people from England (Wood 251). The Cecil Papers at Hatfield House details that:
The queen is discontented at the great numbers of ‘n—‘ and ‘blackamoores’ which are crept into the realm since the troubles between her highness and the King Of Spain, and are fostered here to the annoyance of her own people.
Cecil mentions that a great deal of black people living in London were former slaves freed from captured Spanish ships. Spain of course was Catholic and their king Phillip II had sent a vast armada against the English which helps underscore a major reason for the hostility against these formerly Spanish moors; the fear that, even though these people were baptized English Christians, they might secretly be traitors, sympathetic to the Spanish or to the great numbers of Muslims living in Spain. The English weren’t the only ones concerned. In 1609, the Spanish king expelled the Moors from Spain entirely, probably due to the high levels of Muslims in Spain. With this in mind, you can see how topical Othello was for its time, since it touched on many contemporary issues of race and politics.
One important thing to remember about Othello is that he is not only a black man in a predominantly white country, he is in all probability a converted Muslim who helps the Venetian army fight Muslim Turks. With this in mind, you can imagine how hard it must be for the people of Venice to trust him, and how hard it makes it for Othello to feel like a true Venetian.
A very high profile example of the mixture of admiration and anxiety towards Moors comes from 1600. Ambassador Abdul Guahid from Morocco, (himself a Moor), came to visit London to discuss a military plan to take the East and West Indes away from the Spanish. He stayed at the court for several months during which time, Shakespeare’s company performed for him and the court. To commemorate the visit, a writer called Leo the African presented the ambassador with a book called A Geographical History Of Africa, and he himself posed for a portrait, shown below.
Most scholars cite Guahid as one of the likely inspirations for Othello’s character. Some even suggest that Othello’s original costume and appearance might have been taken from Guahid. Although he was honored publicly, according to the documentary Shakespeare Uncovered, in private, courtiers were whispering about Guahid, hoping that he would leave England soon. Whether Guahid was Shakespeare’s inspiration for Othello, it is worth noting the admiration and anxiety that he put into the hearts of the English courtiers he visited, including probably, Shakespeare.
So when Shakespeare wrote Othello, the black population was growing, a noble moor was getting attention at court, and he might have been living and working around black people in his company, so he might have been trying to present a black character in a positive light based on his experiences. So what does the text of Othello say about black people, and what Shakespeare might have thought about them?
The dilemma anyone reading or performing Othello faces is the fact that he is both a noble general who loves his wife, and also a jealous savage murderer. As I have mentioned, Shakespeare might have known black actors and some claim that he had a mistress of color, but that doesn’t guarantee that he was aware of the oppression and degradation of the African people. So why did he choose to make the character black in the first place?
Part II: What does the play say about race?
Shakespeare’s source for Othello was an Italian short story by Giovanni Battista Giraldi. It has some small differences in plot, but Othello’s character is identical to Shakespeare’s, though he is never referred to by name; instead he is only called “The Moor.” Still, Giraldi mentions The Moor’s bravery, skill in battle, and initial reluctance to believe the devilish ensign who deceived him. Therefore Shakespeare emphasized all the positive qualities of his original source.
Othello is not presented as a savage person; we see him as somebody who comes from somewhere else. It is impossible to pin down exactly where he comes from because his descriptions of his past are very vague and sometimes seemingly contradictory. As they mentioned in the TV documentary Shakespeare Uncovered, what we do know is that he definitely assimilated into Venetian culture, presumably converted to Christianity from whatever religion he had, and rose through the ranks by fighting the Ottoman Turks. This means Othello is waging war against Muslims. What I am trying to construct here is to determine based on what we know about black people from Shakespeare’s time and what we know about stereotypes of foreigners and others and the journey of Othello, is his murderous jealous behavior, as a result of nurture, (which is to say Iago‘s devilish manipulation), or by nature. In other words, did Shakespeare write a racist play that condemns interracial marriages due to the barbarous nature of Moors?
Othello is not the only jealous character in the Shakespearean cannon; Claudio in Much Ado, Postumous in Cymbeline, and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale all accuse their wives of infidelity and all of them threatened to kill those unfortunate (and innocent women). This means that Shakespeare is not implying that jealousy is inherently connected to race. Looking at the text of Othello, one interpretation I can offer is that it is less about black people and more about how white people perceive them. Just like in Shakespeare’s source, very few people in the play call Othello by his name, they call him a term that defines him by his race. In addition, though Othello never talks explicitly about his race and is very cryptic about his life, plenty of characters make assumptions about what being a moor means:
One reason Iago is able to manipulate the people close to Othello is because he can manipulate the prejudices that they have about black people. He knows that they will believe anything he says, as long as it falls in line with their preconceptions. In addition, since Othello isn’t a native Venetian, Iago can manipulate Othello’s inexperience with Venetian society:
197 Look to your wife; observe her well with Cassio;
201 I know our country disposition well;
202 In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
203 They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience
204 Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown.
205 Dost thou say so?
206 She did deceive her father, marrying you;
207 And when she seem’d to shake and fear your looks,
208 She loved them most.
208 And so she did.
208. go to: An expression of impatience.
208 Why, go to then;
209. seeming: false appearance.
209 She that, so young, could give out such a seeming,
210. seal: blind. (A term from falconry). oak: A close-grained wood.
210 To seel her father’s eyes up close as oak,
211 He thought ’twas witchcraft—but I am much to blame;
212 I humbly do beseech you of your pardon
213 For too much loving you.
213. bound: indebted.
213 I am bound to thee for ever.
214 I see this hath a little dash’d your spirits. Othello, Act III, Scene iii.
Plenty of actors, scholars, and directors have made the case that Shakespeare’s plays aren’t racist, but they do have racist elements. In Othello’s case, the racism of other people destroys an otherwise honorable man.
The Murder: As a counter argument, though Othello is not the only jealous hero in Shakespeare, he is the only black one, and he is the only one who kills his wife onstage. Therefore, even if Othello is a positive black figure at first, his behavior at the end of the play does give an impression of a man who has become a savage murderer, and it is important for the audience to question how watching a white woman being murdered in her bed by a black man makes them feel, especially when everyone else in the play has said he is a barbaric, lustful, foreign beast.
Part III Production History
Although there’s a decent argument that Othello isn’t a racist play, it’s production history has been harrowed with racism. For 250 years the role wasn’t even played by black actors. Even on film, the first black man to play Othello was Laurence Fishburne in 1995.
Going further back, the first genuine black actor to play Othello was Ira Adrige, an African American who moved to England in the mid 1800s. Above is a copy of the playbill for his celebrated touring performance of Othello in 1851, which inspired very powerful and polarized reactions: https://youtu.be/92Z-4eJj7Wo
Audiences have had incredibly powerful reactions to seeing real black actors in the role. Some have expressed disgust and racist hatred, (especially in the scenes with Desdemona), some have expressed praise, sometimes they have ignored the race issues entirely. Reportedly Joseph Stalin loved the play and participated enjoyed Othello’s strength and stoicism (Wood 254). Ultimately the context of a production often determines more of the audience reaction than the actors’ performances.
To end where I began, I’m well aware that it’s impossible to truly tell whether Shakespeare was racist, and it’s equally futile trying to pin down what he was saying about race when he wrote the part of Othello, but it is worth considering how the part is connected to changing views of race and racial relations. Ultimately it is up to the actors and director to decide whether Othello is a good man, a racist stereotype, or anything else. That is the beauty of Shakespeare’s complicated and compelling characters, they can translate beyond time, and maybe even race.
In doing my research for Twelfth Night, I came across a fantastic production from Shakespeare’s Globe in 2002. It used what is known as “original practices,” meaning that the actors tried to replicate everything we know about the way Shakespeare’s actors performed.
The play was performed in the great Globe Theater, which is itself a replica of Shakespeare’s original playhouse, which means that it was outdoors, using mostly natural lighting, and minimal sets. https://youtu.be/qtoUeVjP_rs
In addition, all the women’s roles were played by men, and the actors played multiple parts, which were all accurate stage practices from Shakespeare’s era. Most exciting of all, the actors all wore authentic 17th century costumes designed by veteran costume designer, Jenny Tiramani:
Few things determine how an actor moves or looks more than the clothes he or she wears, and watching these actors wear doublet and hose and real Jacobean dresses really fires up my imagine and makes me feel that I’ve truly been transported through time. The production is available on DVD, as well as several clips on YouTube, and I urge you to take a look at it. In the meantime, I’d like to comment a little on how the costumes from this production inform the audience about the characters that wear them.
Some Info On 17th century fashion
Tight pants or hose, and stockings designed to show off the legs
Tight jackets made of wool or leather called doublets
By the 17th century, starched ruffs were being replaced with lace collars.
Starched collars called ruffs around the neck.
Longer skirts, often embroidered with elaborate patterns
* Servants- Servants like Cesario (who is actually the Duke’s daughter Viola in disguise), would typically wear matching uniforms called liveries, a sign of who they worked for and their master’s trust in their abilities. People judged the aristocracy by how well they trained and controlled their servants, so wearing your master’s livery meant he trusted you to represent his house.
In her first scene as Cesario, a servant named Curio remarks to her that Orsino has shown favor to “him” from the very beginning. This might explain the rich garments that Viola wears in this production, which resemble a noble gentleman more than a servant.
A higher ranking servant like Malvolio would be able to wear a higher status garment, which is why you see Steven Fry as Malvolio dressed in a handsome doublet.
3. Character notes:
* What are they wearing?
* Why are they wearing it?
* How do the clothes inform the movement?
1. Viola (Eddie Redmane) Viola, the star of the show, begins the show as the daughter of a duke, who has just been shipwrecked in a foreign country, so her clothes must look bedraggled and worn, yet appropriate to her status. As I said before though, for the majority of the play, Viola is disguised as the servant Cesario
2. Malvolio (Steven Fry)
Malvolio wears dark colors since he’s a Puritanical servant.
He mentions that he has a watch. The first ever wristwatches ever came into being around this time.
Most productions give Malvolio a Gold chain and/ or a staff of office to show his status, and his prideful nature.
In Act III, Malvolio is tricked into wearing yellow stockings with cross garters.
3. Maria the Countess Olivia’s maid, (who has an appetite for tricks and pranks), Maria’s job is to dress and help Olivia with her daily routine. This might include tying up her corset, putting on her makeup, and helping her with the elaborate gowns that nobles wore during this period. In the video below, you can watch a dresser help get an actress into an elaborate costume for another Globe theatre production. Just think of the amount of time and hard work it would take for a servant like Maria to dress Olivia every day!
In the play, Viola momentarily mistakes Maria for her mistress because she wears a veil. This also suggests that, rather than wearing a livery like Cesario, maybe Olivia let Maria wear some of her older clothes, which was a common practice for high level servants. A lot of the costumes Shakespeare’s company wore were probably hand me downs from their aristocratic patrons.
4. Olivia (Mark Rylance)
In this production, the countess and all the female roles were performed by men, just as they were in Shakespeare’s Day. Mark Rylance, who played Olivia, was also the Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre.
Olivia is mourning her lost brother, which is why she’s traditionally dressed in a black dress and veil
The dress is black silk with elaborate embroidery, as you can see from this actual sampler of the real fabric used in the show. You will also notice the threads holding the fabric together with metal points at the end. Olivia’s gown was hand sewn into many different pieces and tied together with these points. One nickname Shakespeare gave servants like Maria was “One who ties [her] points.”
Costumes like these offer a tantalizing glimpse into history. Just as Shakespeare’s words help an actor bring to life the thoughts and feelings of his age, The type of clothes his company wore helps the actor embody the moiré’s and desires of Shakespeare’s society, whether a mournful countess, a dazzling gentleman, or a reserved Puritan.
“Q&A: Mark Rylance on Shakespeare, Twelfth Night and Richard III” Time Out Magazine. Posted: Tuesday November 12 2013
The Merchant Of Venice is unquestionably Shakespeare’s most controversial play- it covers such topics as anti-semitism, religious hypocrisy, racism, slavery, and the meaning of justice and mercy. As I have written before, few people read this play in school, but I believe that it has many lessons to teach our children. I also believe its lessons are also very much a part of the Christmas/ Hanukkah/ Kwanza holiday season, and here’s why:
All that glitters is not gold.
Hath not a Jew Eyes
The quality of mercy is not strained
You may very well wonder why this play about greed and prejudice reflects the warm holiday spirit. I would argue that, like cold winter snow, this play emphasizes the importance and the need for compassion, humanity, and generosity because without it society becomes truly frigid.
Merchant Of Venice takes an unflinching look at greed, prejudice, and religious hypocrisy, while at the same time retaining a hope for peace on Earth and goodwill towards men.
One of the best ways I can justify the connection between Merchant and the holidays is by comparing it to the quintessential Christmas story, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In terms of tone, themes and especially characters, these two classics are very close indeed. Shylock is an ancestor of Scrooge- in addition to both being money lenders, both men are miserly, cold, and willing to destroy lives for wealth. Shylock even has a ghost that comes back to haunt him. Shylock mentions a ring that he got from his late wife Leah, similar to how Scrooge lost his only love, Belle. Just as Scrooge is a counterexample of everything that Christmas stands for, Shylock’s greediness, cruelty, and hatred of the people around him make him a figure to avoid, no matter what holiday you celebrate.
Merchant also raises questions about materialism, which we should all consider around the holidays. Shylock especially mentions this in quotes like: “You take my life when you take the means whereby I live.”
The themes of Merchant also reflect a modern multicultural holiday season. In one example which I wrote about before, The Prince Of Morocco has a great speech that calls to mind the concept of kuchijagulia, or self determination, one of the 7 principles of Kwanzaa. According to the official Kwanza website, kuchijagulia means, “To speak up for oneself,” and Morocco definitely does that:
Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,
To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.
Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love,
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.
I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine
Hath fear’d the valiant: by my love I swear
The best-regarded virgins of our clime
Have loved it too: I would not change this hue,
Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen. Merchant Of Venice, Act II, Scene I.
Moracco’s unwillingness to change who he is makes him a model of the kind of pride African Americans celebrate during Kwanza. In addition Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, is also very proud of his heritage. His famous quip: “Sufferance is the badge of all our tribe,” expresses perfectly the resilience of the Jewish people, which of course is the central point of Hanukkah.
When it comes to Christmas, Antonio demonstrates a Christ- like self sacrifice, when he lets himself be arrested and nearly killed by Shylock.
▪Bassanio. Good cheer, Antonio! What, man, courage yet!
▪ The Jew shall have my flesh, blood, bones and all, 2045
While Antonio’s actions mirror Christ’s sacrifice. Portia’s famous “The Quality Of Mercy Is Not Strained,” speech, goes to the heart of the reason why Christ came to earth; to grant mercy to the sinners who would be damned otherwise
▪Shylock. On what compulsion must I? tell me that.
▪Portia. The quality of mercy is not strain’d, 2125
▪ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
▪ Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
▪ It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
▪ ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
▪ The throned monarch better than his crown; 2130
▪ His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
▪ The attribute to awe and majesty,
▪ Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
▪ But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
▪ It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, 2135
▪ It is an attribute to God himself;
▪ And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
▪ When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
▪ Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
▪ That, in the course of justice, none of us 2140
▪ Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
▪ And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
▪ The deeds of mercy. Merchant Of Venice, Act IV Scene I.
Shakespeare no doubt wrote these characters to reflect the Christian values many people celebrate at Christmas. Meanwhile the play’s comic subplot with Bassanio and Portia teaches Christians about generosity and mercy. As I have written before, the character Bassanio is the moral center of the play, and his journey mirrors many characters in classic Christmas stories who learn about giving and receiving, the true meaning of Christmas.
In Act III, Scene ii, Bassanio participates in the highest stakes Secret Santa gift exchange ever: three boxes of gold, silver, and lead are set before him.
If Bassanio picks the right gift, he will be rich, powerful, and married to a beautiful woman, but the winning box is inscribed with a warning: “Who chooses me must give and hazard all he has.” Bassanio wins the gift auction, which means he may marry the beautiful Portia, but he gives her the choice to marry him or not: https://youtu.be/6IFSMgggS8k
[Music, whilst BASSANIO comments on the caskets to himself]
▪Bassanio. So may the outward shows be least themselves: 1440
The world is still deceived with ornament.
▪ In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
▪ But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
▪ Obscures the show of evil? In religion,
▪ What damned error, but some sober brow 1445
▪ Will bless it and approve it with a text,
▪ Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?
▪ There is no vice so simple but assumes
▪ Some mark of virtue on his outward parts:
▪ How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false 1450
Look on beauty, 1455
▪ And you shall see ’tis purchased by the weight;
▪ Which therein works a miracle in nature,
▪ Therefore, thou gaudy gold,
▪ Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee;
▪ Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge 1470
▪ ‘Tween man and man: but thou, thou meagre lead,
▪ Which rather threatenest than dost promise aught,
▪ Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence;
▪ And here choose I; joy be the conseque
▪ You that choose not by the view,
▪ Chance as fair and choose as true!
▪ Since this fortune falls to you,
▪ Be content and seek no new,
▪ If you be well pleased with this 1505
▪ And hold your fortune for your bliss,
▪ Turn you where your lady is
▪ And claim her with a loving kiss.
▪ A gentle scroll. Fair lady, by your leave;
▪ I come by note, to give and to receive. 1510
▪ Like one of two contending in a prize,
▪ That thinks he hath done well in people’s eyes,
▪ Hearing applause and universal shout,
▪ Giddy in spirit, still gazing in a doubt
▪ Whether these pearls of praise be his or no; 1515
▪ So, thrice fair lady, stand I, even so;
▪ As doubtful whether what I see be true,
▪ Until confirm’d, sign’d, ratified by you. Merchant of Venice Act III, Scene ii.
Like the story The Gift Of the Magi, Bassanio prizes Portia’s love, and is willing to give her all he has in return, which is what separates him from the other suitors. Bassanio also understands it’s not the physical gift that is really the gift, it’s the love that it represents that really matters, which allows him to look past the outward appearance of the lead chest. Having gratitude for the gifts we receive and pledging our love to others is something that everyone should remember at Christmas and all festive occasions.In Conclusion, it isn’t cheery, and it is not as hopeful as most holiday stories, but in the season when people of all faiths celebrate together, Merchant Of Venice is a great reminder of our shared humanity and how we can show love and mercy to our fellow people.
Book– Will in the world by Steven Greenblatt- An amazing analysis of Shakespeare’s life and career. The chapter “Laughter At the Scaffold,” traces the link between Merchant Of Venice and the real life treatment of Jews in the 16th century Book/ TV- Playing Shakespeare by John Barton.
Movie– Merchant Of Venice 2004 Movie starring Al Pacino. I like the way the director films the drama documentary style, using a single handheld camera in most of the shots. Pacino is very good at playing Shylock as a bitter, cynical old man who is trying to survive in a powerful Christian country.
If you have two ears, you’re probably familiar with the Broadway Musical Hamilton. It swept the Tonys, has opened up touring productions across the country, and there’s already talk of a movie.
This historic American musical was the brainchild of writer Lin Manuel Miranda, who also originated the role of Alexander Hamilton.
The show is incredibly smart, creative, and delves into the seminal moments of American history.
What’s really exciting to me is that Hamilton also has a depth and complexity that mirrors some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, specifically the history plays.
Between about 1590 and 1613, Shakespeare wrote 10 plays about the lives of English kings, from the vain Richard the Second to the heroic Henry the Fifth, to the diabolical Richard the Third. Here is a list of Shakespearean history plays, with links to online study guides, listed in chronological order by reign, not publication date.
Are these Shakespearean history plays historically accurate by our standards? No, not by a long shot, though Shakespeare is only partially to blame for that. While Lin Manuel-Miranda had Hamilton’s own essays, his letters from friends and loved ones, and of course, every American history book at his disposal, Shakespeare’s sources were few, and mostly propaganda. They were, (to paraphrase Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin), “A series of lies, composed by winners, to excuse their hanging of the losers.”
Shakespeare’s genius however, was to turn these two-dimensional propaganda stories into three dimensional characters with which we can all identify. Miranda did the same thing in reverse- distilling his wealth of historical information into a universal story of a man’s quest for the American Dream. Hamilton went from being an immigrant, to a soldier, to a pioneer in American law, government, and finance and the musical reflects his struggle to achieve his dreams through each stage of his life. It is also a love song from America to a man who dreamed of a future for America, one not dissimilar to the ode Shakespeare wrote to his “Star of England,” Henry the Fifth. The greatest compliment I can give Miranda is to say that he created an American musical, with the scale and breadth of Shakespeare.
Part I: War and Peace
In Shakespeare’s histories, particularly the first tetracycle of plays that include Richard the Second, the three parts of Henry VI, and Richard, III, there is a constant shift between war and peace, as scholar Robert Hunter observes. These plays cover the 200 year period of Wars of the Roses, and the end of the Hundred Years War. In all of these plays there are some very violent and very opportunistic young men who see war as an opportunity to rise above their stations. In war, they win glory in death, honor, respect, and status in life. However, in peacetime, they have “no delight to pass away the time,” as Richard III observes, and they struggle to survive in the political landscape of peace.
Hamilton is a man of this same mold: When we first meet him, he is a poor immigrant from the West Indies with no title or money to improve his status. He spends the first third of the musical wishing he could become a commander in the Revolutionary War, especially in the song: “My Shot”
Once Hamilton joins the revolution, his fortunes start to improve; he becomes George Washington’s aide-de-camp, becomes a war hero in the Battle of Yorktown, and marries Eliza Schyler, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in America.
Hamilton in war bears similarities to Shakespearean characters like Hotspur, Richard Duke of York, and even Richard III; people who see war as a chance to either die in glory, or become honored, wealthy, and powerful.
Unfortunately for Hamilton, he fares less well once the war ends. Even though he becomes Washington’s first Secretary Of the Treasury, his success and closeness to now-President Washington makes him a walking target to his political adversaries. Even worse, his ambition and inability to compromise makes Hamilton equally vulnerable to people who see him as a loudmouth, an elitist, and a would-be demagogue who wants to control America’s finances and live like a king, similar to the way the British Prime Minister controls England’s finances.
The character Hamilton resembles most in peacetime is Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.
I happen to know a lot about this character since I played him back in 2008. Wolsey controlled Henry VIII’s finances and was hated by most of Henry’s court because he was the son of a poor butcher in Essex, and became the king’s right-hand man. Just look at the faces of the people of the court in this painting of the king and Wolsey by Laslett John Pott; they are clearly jealous of Wolsey’s closeness to the king.
In both plays, Washington and Henry are treated like gods- invulnerable, aloof, and completely above reproach.
In both plays, whenever anything bad happens, the legislature blames Wolsey and Hamilton, not the King or the President. Also, once Henry or Washington no longer supports their right-hand-man, each one falls from grace and is destroyed by his enemies.
Wolsey and Hamilton both fall because of their position as the financial advisor, which makes them a target to their enemies. Both are accused of using their country’s finances to enhance their personal wealth, which leads him to scandal and disgrace.
In Henry the Eighth , Wolsey is certainly guilty of conspiring to use his country’s wealth to line his own pockets- he pays the cardinals in Rome to influence their vote in the hopes that he will become the next Pope!
What should this mean?
What sudden anger’s this? how have I reap’d it?
He parted frowning from me, as if ruin
Leap’d from his eyes: so looks the chafed lion
Upon the daring huntsman that has gall’d him
Then makes him nothing. I must read this paper;
I fear, the story of his anger. ‘Tis so;
This paper has undone me: ’tis the account
Of all that world of wealth I have drawn together
For mine own ends; indeed, to gain the popedom,
And fee my friends in Rome. O negligence!
Fit for a fool to fall by: what cross devil
Made me put this main secret in the packet
I sent the king? Is there no way to cure this?
No new device to beat this from his brains?
I know ’twill stir him strongly; yet I know
A way, if it take right, in spite of fortune
Will bring me off again. What’s this? ‘To the Pope!’
The letter, as I live, with all the business
I writ to’s holiness. Nay then, farewell!
I have touch’d the highest point of all my greatness;
And, from that full meridian of my glory,
I haste now to my setting: I shall fall
Like a bright exhalation in the evening,
And no man see me more. Henry the Eighth Act III, Scene ii.
Again, though Wolsey is guilty, like Hamilton he also used his financial genius to bring England into a new age of prosperity after centuries of war. The Tudors were some of the richest and most powerful monarchs in British history, and Wolsey helped establish their dynasty, but thanks to his enemies, he is turned out of court in disgrace:
O Cromwell, Cromwell!
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies. Henry VIII, Act III, Scene ii.
Hamilton is also accused of embezzling his wealth by his enemies, including James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson
Hamilton’s enemies argue that his banking system benefits New York, where Hamilton was part of the House Of Representatives, as well as the Constitutional Convention. The main difference between Wolsey and Hamilton is that he didn’t embezzle America’s money, he is actually guilty of a far worse sin- adultery. Hamilton is accused of having an affair, and embezzling funds to keep it quiet, which he denies in a spectacular fashion:
In both plays, the moment where the main character begins to fall is dramatized in a stirring, metaphor-rich soliloquy. Wolsey compares himself to the Sun, who, once he reaches the zenith of the sky, has nowhere to go but down to the west, and set into night.
Hurricane From “Hamilton: An American Musical. Reposted from Deviant Art.com
Hamilton compares his situation to being in the eye of a hurricane, a particularly apt metaphor, since the real Alexander Hamilton’s house was destroyed by a hurricane in 1772. In addition, Lin Manuel Miranda‘s parents come from Puerto Rico an island that has, (and continues to be,) ravaged by hurricanes.
In the song, “Hurricane,” Hamilton remembers that when he lost everything as a boy in 1772, he beat the hurricane by writing a letter which was published in the newspaper, and inspired so much pity that the residents of the island raised enough money to send Alexander to America.
Later in the song, Hamilton decides to try to soothe the political hurricane that has engulfed him by writing a pamphlet, admitting the affair, but denying any embezzlement. Eventually the scandal destroys Hamilton’s career, but it doesn’t destroy his life; for that we have to look at the Shakespearean rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
Part II- The Duel: Hamilton and Burr V Henry and Hotspur.
Aaron Burr and Hamilton keep meeting at important moments in the show, as if their fates are intertwined like gods in some kind of Greek tragedy.
Hamilton and Burr appear as polar opposites in the musical. Hamilton is fiery, opinionated, uncompromising, and highly principled. He ruffles feathers, but his supporters know where he stands. Burr is the opposite. He keeps his views to himself, and waits for the most opportune time to act on anything. Throughout the play, Hamilton and Burr hate and admire different things about each other. Hamilton admits that Burr’s cool practicality helps him to practice the law and succeed in politics, while Burr admires Hamilton’s energy and his ability to work and write as if his life depends on it, especially in the song “The Room Where It Happens.”
After Hamilton endorses Jefferson in the election of 1800, Burr loses the race, and the job of Vice President. In the musical, he blames Hamilton, and their grievance grows into a deadly conflict.
The rivalry between Hamilton and Aaron Burr mirrors many characters in Shakespeare, but the two I want to focus on here are Hotspur and Prince Hal from Henry the Fourth Part One
As this video from the Royal Shakespeare Company shows, these two combatants meet only once in the play, but they are constantly compared to each other by the other characters, who talk about them as if they were twins, (they even have the same first name)! Even the king remarks that his son could have been switched at birth with Hotspur.
Prince Henry (known as Hal in the play), is the heir to the throne. Like Burr in Hamilton, Hal is methodical, cool, keeps his feelings to himself, and is known by some as a Machiavellian politician. Hotspur, (or Henry Percy), is his opposite. Like Hamilton he is fiery, eloquent, and not afraid to die for his cause, which in Hotspur’s case is to supplant the royal family and correct what he believes is an unjust usurpation by Hal’s father, King Henry the Fourth.
In the scene below, the two men seem hungry to not only kill one another, but to win honor and fame as the man who killed the valiant Henry. Whether it’s Henry Percy, or Prince Henry who will die, is something they can only find out by dueling to the death.
If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth.
Thou speak’st as if I would deny my name.
My name is Harry Percy.
Why, then I see
A very valiant rebel of the name.
I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy,
To share with me in glory any more:
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;
Nor can one England brook a double reign,
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.
Nor shall it, Harry; for the hour is come
To end the one of us; and would to God
Thy name in arms were now as great as mine!
I’ll make it greater ere I part from thee;
And all the budding honours on thy crest
I’ll crop, to make a garland for my head.
I can no longer brook thy vanities.
They fight, HOTSPUR is wounded, and falls
O, Harry, thou hast robb’d me of my youth!
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me;
They wound my thoughts worse than sword my flesh:
But thought’s the slave of life, and life time’s fool;
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy,
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue: no, Percy, thou art dust
And food for– Dies.
Hamilton’s duel is also a matter of honor; Alexander wants to defend his statements against Burr, while Burr wants to stop Hamilton from frustrating his political career. Here is how their duel plays out in the musical Hamilton:
Just like Burr, Prince Hal feels remorse after killing his worthy adversary.
For worms, brave Percy: fare thee well, great heart!
Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk!
When that this body did contain a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
Is room enough: this earth that bears thee dead
Bears not alive so stout a gentleman.
If thou wert sensible of courtesy,
I should not make so dear a show of zeal:
But let my favours hide thy mangled face;
And, even in thy behalf, I’ll thank myself
For doing these fair rites of tenderness.
Adieu, and take thy praise with thee to heaven!
Thy ignominy sleep with thee in the grave. Henry IV, Part I, Act V, Scene iv.
III. The Times
In both Hamilton and all of Shakespeare’s history plays, the characters know that they are living during important events and their actions will become part of the history of their country, and none more than Washington. In the song, “History has its eyes on you,” he warns Hamilton that, try as one might, a man’s history and destiny is to some extent, out of his control, which echoes one of King Henry the Fourth’s most bleak realizations:
Henry IV. O God! that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
And changes fill the cup of alteration
With divers liquors! O, if this were seen,
The happiest youth, viewing his progress through,
What perils past, what crosses to ensue,
Would shut the book and sit him down and die. Henry IV, Part II, Act III, Scene i.
Washington is keenly aware of his legacy and does his best to protect it. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV,the king also lies awake trying to figure out how to deal with the problems of his kingdom, which is why Shakespeare gives him the famous line “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Likewise, Richard II, makes a famous speech where he mentions how many kings have a gruesome legacy of dying violently:
As we see the whole story of Hamilton’s life progresses, his fate changes constantly and his legacy shifts in every scene of the show: immigrant, war-hero, celebrated writer, Secretary of the Treasury, but then, once he published The Reynolds Pamphlet, Hamilton went from famous to infamous. After After Burr murdered him in the duel, Hamilton might have been utterly forgotten, in spite of all his great accomplishments. This is a key theme in all history and tragedies, the universal desire of every man to transcend mortality by trying to create a lasting legacy for himself.
The women who tell the story
Fortunately for Hamilton, the women of his story also help to preserve it. Historically, most of Hamilton’s archives were preserved by his wife Eliza Schyler, and she and her sisters help shape the story from the beginning to the end of the show. Hamilton’s sister in law Angelica sets up this theme by literally rewinding the scene of her first meeting with Alexander, and then retells how she and Hamilton met from her own point of view.
Once Eliza decides to marry Hamilton, she asks to “be part of the narrative.” She knows she married a important man and that his life will someday become part of American history. Eliza wants to be a part of that historic narrative.
When Hamilton commits adultery and writes the Reynolds pamphlet though, Eliza is so hurt and scandalized that she rescinds her requests. In the song “Burn,” she destroys her love letters from before the affair, and all correspondence she had with Alexander when he revealed it. Lin Manuel Miranda explained that he wrote the song this way because no records during this period survived, so he invents the notion of Eliza destroying them as a dramatic device, to heighten her estrangement from her husband. Though this is a contrivance, it does re-enforce how, when part of the story is lost, it twists and destroys part of our impression of a person. Henry Tudor went to great lengths to destroy the legacy of his predecessor Richard the Third, and literally repainted him as a deformed tyrant, which haunts Richard’s legacy to this day.
At the end of the play though, Eliza changes her mind yet again, as the final song I placed earlier shows, Eliza spends the last 50 years of her life to preserving and protecting her husband’s name, as well as Washington, all the founding fathers, and children who can grow up knowing that story at her orphanage. This song illustrates clearly that in the end, a man’s story is defined by the people who tell it, and Hamilton is fortunate to have such a creative, energetic and talented writer/ actor in Lin Manuel Miranda, and the cast of Hamilton, to preserve the story in such a Shakespearean way.