The theme of building a legacy that will stand the test of time is something that consumes Hamilton throughout his life, and by extension, the play. During the war, Hamilton is willing to die as long as it is for a cause that means something to him. The idea that “history has its eyes on you” haunts many of the characters. It is this idea that causes Hamilton to risk his marriage by going public with his affair, in the hope that he could preserve his legacy by controlling how the story of his dishonor is told. The sense that everyone has a history and a legacy is what drives the characters' ethical lives, and encourages them to work for what they believe in. This theme is echoed time and again in an oft-uttered mantra of Hamilton's, "I'm not throwing away my shot"—his shot being his one chance at creating a dazzling legacy.
Hamilton’s pride about his legacy is directly contrasted with Washington, who gives up his power after two terms in order to ensure that democratic principles aren't sacrificed for personal glory. When Hamilton dies, Eliza takes up his legacy and seeks to do good in the country for the remaining 50 years of her life so that her husband and family can be remembered honorably. Many of the songs in the musical address the question of how to uphold one's legacy, particularly the last song, called "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story." The question of one's place in history is central to the thematic world of the play.
War and revolution shape both the characters and plot of Hamilton, as it is the American revolution that gives Hamilton his fame and success in the American government. Hamilton not only believes that war will help the country earn independence and prove its worth, but that it will help him to stand out in history and prove himself. At one point he says, “I wish there was a war, then we could prove we’re worth more than anyone bargained for." Having had to fight for everything in his life, Hamilton has an attitude that one's honor is worth risking in order to move up in the world. This applies to the future of the country as well. This attitude distinguishes him from the less determined Burr, who does not fight for anything unless he is sure it is advantageous for him.
Running out of time
The theme of time affects each of the characters differently. Hamilton is constantly afraid that he will run out of time, and his fear of the passage of time drives him to become a fiercely hard worker, ambitiously working long hours in order to positively influence the foundation of the country. Burr takes the opposite view, feeling he must always be careful and take his time in order to succeed. Laurens wishes to form the first all black battalion, however he is killed in battle before he can see this dream completed; in this way we see an example of someone whose dreams are denied them by the passage of time. Laurens' death seems to directly affect Hamilton's attitude during the second act, as he says, “I have so much work to do,” and from then on cannot draw his mind away from forming his legacy and completing his work. It is not until the end of the musical that Hamilton realizes the benefit of making peace with our limited time on Earth, when he says (about constructing a legacy): “it's planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”
Honor & Reputation
The structure of the duel is about protecting and defending one's honor, fighting against another man to stand up for one's self. In this way, the "duel" is a microcosm of the political atmosphere through which Hamilton is navigating. Throughout, he must defend his honor against people who would rather he had less power. In this way, honor is a central theme for the characters in Hamilton. When Philip challenges Eacker to a duel, he does so in order to defend his father's honor and uphold his family's reputation. Then, he behaves even more honorably when he does not shoot at Eacker in the duel. While it costs him his life, Philip dies honorably, meaning he did not do anything that might be interpreted as shady or disreputable.
When Jefferson and his cohort seek to get dirt on Hamilton in order to ruin his reputation, Hamilton decides to take matters into his own hands by releasing the Reynolds Pamphlet, which details his marital infidelities. Rather than let others bring dishonor to him, Hamilton opts to take control of his situation and take responsibility for his immoral actions. While his affair sullies his honor, his ability to be transparent and honest about it turns out to be an honorable tactic, and he is able to win favor with Eliza once again.
In the end, Hamilton dies honorably, not shooting at his rival, Aaron Burr. While he died prematurely, Hamilton's honor has contributed to his positive legacy, while Burr's reputation is as Hamilton's killer, a much less honorable designation.
Forgiveness & Reconciliation
While much of the plot is centered around the grudges and resentments that spring up among heavy hitters in the political realm, another important theme is that of forgiveness and reconciliation. Hamilton, for all his disagreements with Burr, tries to be forgiving and to make a way for the two men to get along, but their differences gradually become too great to overcome. The question of forgiveness comes up most starkly in the relationship between Hamilton and his wife, Eliza. After Hamilton has an affair, and then reveals it publicly in the Reynolds Pamphlet, Eliza is furious with him, and burns his letters in retaliation for her mistreatment. In the course of her passionate ballad, "Burn," it seems like she may never forgive Hamilton. After the death of their son, Hamilton goes to her so that they can mourn together, begging for her forgiveness and promising his loyalty to her in the future. In the wake of their shared tragedy, Eliza accepts Hamilton back into her life and they are reconciled.
Taking Action vs. Waiting
The primary tension between Burr and Hamilton is their wildly different approaches to taking action. While Hamilton is eager to act and wants nothing more than to jump in and get his hands dirty, Burr prefers to sit back and wait for the right time to act. From Hamilton's perspective, Burr's approach is less-than-honest, and often more strategic than genuine. Where Hamilton can be hot-headed, foolhardy, and overly opinionated, Burr can be underhanded, weak-willed, and reticent to the point of untrustworthiness. The rivalry between the two men pits the two different temperaments against one another more broadly, and a central question of the musical becomes about which tactic is more effective and wise in the long run. The two men become foils for one another, alternately revealing weaknesses and strengths in the other's logic.
One of Hamilton's greatest strengths, aside from his passion and zeal, is his gift with language. Represented theatrically by his abilities and talents as a rapper, Hamilton's gifts as a writer were influential in laying the foundation for America. He was the foremost writer of The Federalist Papers, which urged the people to adopt a strong federal government. His ability to write and be persuasive through text is one of the main attributes of his enduring legacy on the American governmental process, and this is an important theme in the musical.
Hamilton Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Hamilton is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.