#YayHamlet: What Shakespeare and Broadway’s Biggest Hit Have to Do with Each Other

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.

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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?

Rhetoric.

(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
Outmanned
Outnumbered, outplanned

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…
Outrun
Outlast
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.

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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.

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–Cass Morris
OCS Academic Resources Manager

*PS: Why “#YayHamlet”? Here’s why.

Language, Shakespeare, and the Gettysburg Address

Wordle of the text of the Gettysburg AddressToday marks the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, perhaps one of the most famous compositions in the English language. For decades, it was a staple of classroom memorization, and its opening line still permeates our cultural consciousness (with occasional help from parodies and cartoon shows). But what is it about that speech that has such a lasting effect? Some of the same elements that have allowed Shakespeare to endure. This article by Jeanne Fahnestock does a nice job of analyzing the linguistic components of the Gettysburg Address. Something that particularly struck me was the discussion of word origins.

It is therefore not unusual in synonym-rich English to have multiple ways of saying something, one living on from Anglo-Saxon or Norse, another a French-tinctured option, and still another incorporated directly from a classical language. Consider the alternatives last/endure/persist or full/complete/consummate. Of course no English speaker would see these alternatives as fungible since, through years of usage, each has acquired a special sense and preferred context. But an artist in the English language like Lincoln understands the consequences in precision and nuance of movement from layer to layer. He chose the French-sourced endure at one one point in his Remarks and the Old English full at another.

Part of the genius of the composition of famous speeches lies in choosing the right word for the moment. Shakespeare is a master at this. The vocabulary of Shakespeare’s plays totals over 31,000 different words, and more than half of those only see use once or twice. While he can use and invent Latinate or French-origin words like “arbitrate”, “dissembling”, “burgonet”, or even “honorificabilitudinitatibus”, he can also write sentences as simple as “He is a dreamer; let us leave him” or “I am slain”. When we ask students to do word-for-word paraphrasing, as our actors do at the start of the rehearsal process, they often find that Shakespeare has already chosen the simplest word. Trying to “simplify” by paraphrasing turns something as simple as Orlando’s statement “Nothing: I am not taught to make any thing” into something distinctly more complex, such as “Absence; I am not educated to create presence.”

Word choice matters to rhetoric as well. As Fahnestock’s article points out, much of the power of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address comes from Lincoln’s method of structuring his sentences to achieve a desired effect — one that is emotionally moving, one that trains the listener to expect certain forms, and one that is aurally graceful and satisfying. The devices he uses — antithesis, polyptoton, tricolon — are some of the same as Shakespeare’s most-frequently-used forms. Repetition snags the ear, and Shakespeare and Lincoln, both men with an acute awareness for how to hold an audience, knew how to turn it to their advantage.

Interestingly, Lincoln connects to Shakespeare in one more way: textual variants. No one actually knows what were the 270-odd words spoken that day, as there are at least five different copies of the speech in Lincoln’s handwriting, and it is unclear which he read from — or if he may have made further extemporaneous adjustments. Further complicating the matter, newspapers in the days following the speech printed yet different variations, leaving no single authoritative text. That confusion of textual veracity is one that Shakespeare scholars also face, since even our quartos and folios are still several degrees removed from Shakespeare’s hand. Though Lincoln and Shakespeare both wrote some of the most famous sentences in the English language, the strange reality of textual culture is that we can’t now know that those were even their original words.

“You must translate; ’tis fit we understand.”

Sarah works with students during a Little Academe.

Sarah works with students during a Little Academe.

As ever, I find myself wrestling with “Shakespeare in Translation.”  I have been invited, as part of the Shakespeare Theatre Association Executive Board, to travel to Brazil for 10 days next month to serve as an adviser on a reconstructed Globe that the Instituto Gandarela is looking to build.  Never mind that this is a trip to Brazil (!!!) or that I will get to work with the amazing Peter McCurdy, the builder behind Shakespeare’s Globe and their new indoor playhouse, The Wanamaker (and a good friend to the OCS). As I prepare for this trip, I am wondering how to get past our condemnation of “No Fear Shakespeare”-style translations (as so eloquently argued by our friends at the Folger Shakespeare Library) yet fight the good fight for Shakespeare in other languages.

Word has it (how I wish I could personally confirm) that the productions at Shakespeare’s Globe in London last summer as part of the Globe to Globe celebration were stunning and amazing explorations of theatrical production.  I have personally, and to my delight, had the opportunity to see Der Brudermord, a German translation of Hamlet directed by Christine Schmidle at the Blackfriars Playhouse.  The play was fun, and I didn’t have too much trouble following the story, despite it being in German (full disclosure: I am familiar with the English version).  I thought the experience brought me closer to what German audiences seeing the play in English in the 17th century may have experienced, but I didn’t note any particularly stirring phrases or textual expertise that stirred me to embrace the play as I did when I saw Hamlet performed for the first time by Khris Lewin on our stage.  At that performance, the “nunnery” rang in my ears, the “rant” struck my senses, the players “did not saw the air too much,” and I knew why.

My original training, in Theatre Arts, should provide a clear answer to my questions about these translated productions.  Good theatre, good productions, good performances should satisfy the quandary. But, since immersing myself in the performance of Shakespeare here, I find that I cannot break those things from the text. From the words. From the arrangement of the words to form verse, to shape rhetorical figures, and to provide clues like embedded stage directions.  Our practice is so engaged with the methods we think Shakespeare and his actors engaged with (see Tiffany Stern’s Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan, see the American Shakespeare Center’s Actors’ Renaissance Season podcasts, see our current education workshops list), that I don’t know where to begin with the question.  But I would love to start a conversation. Are you an ESL/ELL student who loves (or, for that matter, hates) Shakespeare? Are you fluent in language other than English and have read (or written) translations? Are you a professor in Japan or Taiwan (as some of our Conference attendees are) who is working with students? What are you focused on when you discuss or play with Shakespeare? Do you find that Shakespeare has an influence on Portuguese? Or French? Can you recommend a place for those of us engaged in building a Global network of Shakespeare theatres (including education departments) to go to find a common thread for exploration with our foreign language students and audiences?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and, working with Cass and Kimberly and our fabulous interns, to finding ways to make the work with do with all of our students deeply engaging and illuminating.

–Sarah