As in most musicals, there are many melodies, lines, and versions of the same song that recur throughout. This motivic structure is common in the musical theater tradition and derives from the operatic tradition. Melodic and lyrical motifs remind the audience of the characters' central psychological journey, their concerns, their worries, and their desires. Musical motifs abound in Hamilton, as we follow Hamilton's biography over the course of many years. Here are some specific examples of musical motifs:
- The main theme (“Alexander Hamilton”)— “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore…” recurs throughout the musical. This line in particular highlights Hamilton's difficult childhood and shows the ways that he has overcome unthinkable odds to achieve what he has achieved. The fact that the line asks the audience to ponder how Hamilton could do all this gets us to focus on how surprising and impressive his accomplishments are.
- The line “Aaron Burr, Sir” from “Aaron Burr, Sir” recurs throughout, and serves to characterize Burr, Hamilton's chief rival.
- The line “I am not throwing away my shot” from “My Shot," recurs often in the musical as a reminder that Hamilton likes to go after his desires and dreams, that he recognizes that he has a huge opportunity to forge his own path and create his own destiny.
- The melody in “You’ll Be Back” during each of King George III’s songs recurs, a sing-song, Beatles style, pop rock riff that highlights how—although he is charming—King George has a diabolical bite and anger thinly veiled just below the surface. The contrast between the upbeat song and the more menacing lyrics creates a comic contrast.
- The word “helpless,” whenever Eliza is in distress (from “Helpless”) and the line “you can never be satisfied” whenever Angelica is upset (from “Satisfied"). This illuminates the personalities of the two women, and their respective relationships to Hamilton and his life path.
- The line “I’m willing to wait for it” or just “Wait for it,” from “Wait For It."
- The count up from one to ten in “The Ten Duel Commandments” each time there is a duel.
- The line “That would be enough” from “That Would Be Enough.”
Alexander Hamilton was born into a family and a country in which people die young. Hamilton himself doesn't believe he will live past twenty. Because of this, throughout the musical, Hamilton tries to do the most he can in the time he has, because he knows life is short and precious. Hamilton has thought about death so much, he tells the other characters, that “it feels more like a memory” (“My Shot”). He does not fear death and he is willing to die for the right cause. Indeed, Washington must hold him back from certain situations, because he seems almost eager to lay down his life for his country. After the death of his son, Philip, Hamilton has a duel with Burr, and dies honorably, defending what he believes in. In the musical, death and sacrifice are equated with believing in something enough, in caring, and in fighting passionately. Those who fear death, in Hamilton's eyes, are not living passionately enough.
Throughout the musical, Hamilton tries to make the most out of every minute of his life. Burr asks Hamilton why he writes like he is running out of time. Hamilton works ridiculously hard, with an almost obsessive work ethic. Since Hamilton dies at the end of the musical, he literally is running out of time. At the end of the musical, we learn that Eliza lives another fifty years after Hamilton’s death. She also uses that time the best she can, trying to accomplish as much as Hamilton would have, but she admits that he would have been able to do much more. Throughout the musical, characters refer to time and the inevitability of change.
Several of the characters, especially George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Eliza Schuyler, realize that they will go down in history for their roles in the American Revolution. Eliza says in “Burn” that Hamilton obsesses over what people will think of him in the future, so he writes everything with caution. Though Eliza initially asks Hamilton if she can be a part of his story (“That Would Be Enough”), when she learns of his affair with Maria Reynolds, she takes herself out of the story by burning all of the letters she wrote to her husband (“Burn”). This is a dramatic gesture, representing the ways she wants to be removed from the story of her own life in the eyes of historians. She feels so betrayed by Hamilton, that she is willing to completely erase her relationship to him from the record books.
In the end, Eliza puts herself “back in the narrative” (“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”) by telling the stories of all the Founding Fathers, especially Alexander Hamilton, and by expressing her loyalty to her husband, even after he has made a mistake.
Throughout the musical, Hamilton filters his passion and his verve into writing. When we first meet him, we learn that he wrote about the devastating hurricane that hit his hometown in the Carribean islands, which inspired his community to raise money to send him to America and help in the founding of the country. When he is established in America, he proves himself to be a capable military commander and political thinker, but his greatest strength is in the writing he does. Of the 85 articles that make up The Federalist Papers, Hamilton writes 51 of them. Equipped with an incredible work ethic, Hamilton manages to articulate his beliefs and ideals through writing in an especially magnificent way. Later in the musical, when he fears that his extramarital affair will be revealed by his enemies, Hamilton pens the Reynolds Pamphlet, exposing his crime in his own words. While this writing has a disastrous effect on his marriage, it is less harmful than if he had not taken control of and responsibility for its narrative. Thus, writing becomes a symbol of Hamilton's immense gifts, the integrity of his beliefs, and his ability to take control of his own destiny and overcome hardship.
Hamilton, while writing to Angelica in "Take a Break," compares his life to the play Macbeth, “another Scottish tragedy," referring to the fact that he is half Scottish. He says that “They think me Macbeth, and ambition is my folly, I'm a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive pain. Madison is Banquo, Jefferson's Macduff, And Birnam Wood is Congress on its way to Dunsinane,” comparing his own struggles in maintaining power and influence to the struggles of Macbeth, the famous doomed Shakespearean character. Hamilton uses this allegory and expands it to reflect the narrative of his whole political world, as a way of showing that the stakes are high and the intrigue is dramatic and theatrical. Even if one doesn't know the play well, Macbeth is commonly known as an exceedingly brutal and tragic play, with a great deal of intrigue, so this allegory serves to show the audience the pressure that Hamilton is under.
Hamilton Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Hamilton is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.