Critic’s Corner: Hamilton: the modern epic


Sing to me, muse, of the man of twists and turns – how does an orphan, scholar, $10 Founding Father become so much of a phenomenon that a hit Broadway musical about his life is changing the way we look at all of history?

What’s his name, you ask? Not Odysseus or Achilles, but Alexander Hamilton, our modern epic hero.

Maybe like me, you’ve thought of “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” as ancient works that are interesting for English majors and classicists but do not pertain to us today. A long poem about the effects of war on individuals and families, emotional romances and the fate of nations? Isn’t that all in the past?

Well consider yourself a farmer refuted: the epic poem is alive and well, and it’s blowing us all away. “Hamilton: The Musical” is truly our modern-day epic, and it has a lot to teach us about the value of this genre and about the importance of our own choices.

An epic is a narrative about momentous events affecting the destiny of a people, told in a style as grand as the subject matter. For Homer, this meant long poems meant to be recited orally about the Trojan War and Greek heroes. For Lin-Manuel Miranda (composer, songwriter and lead actor of his own show), this means a rap musical about the birth of our nation and a non-stop group of men determined to change the world. There’s practically no difference.

The Revolutionary War centered on an underdog militia of misfit colonies defeating what was, at the time, the global superpower of Great Britain. The world turned upside down. What could be more epic than that?

The musical style reflects the importance of the story: fast-paced rap shows the intensity of war and politics; dramatic solos by the Schuyler sisters emphasize emotion in their relationships; entertaining dialogue between characters sets up the alliances and tensions that come with creating a brand new nation.

Another feature of the epic is its focus on the person (there’s a reason that class is part of our core!). Homer’s characters make choices that drastically affect the fate of everyone around them, for better or worse. “Hamilton” similarly zooms in on individuals in the midst of cosmic events to allow listeners to understand their inner lives and motivations.

Alexander sings about how his tragic past spurs his drive to leave a legacy, and his influence on our government literally rewrote the game for America. Aaron Burr, the antagonist, is just as intelligent, but he wastes time waiting rather than acting on what he believes because he has so much to lose.

Both were great men who contributed so much to our country. Both were also rascals with women and held petty grudges against each other like no one’s business. (Ring a bell, Achilles?)

The story shows listeners that the Founding Fathers of our country were real, flawed people we can relate to and learn from. They were heroes, yes, but not saints on a pedestal. We can see a lot of ourselves in their desires to do great things and in their mistakes – ultimately in their humanity, imperfect but still trying.

Epic poems tend to showcase the values of the society for which they are written. In delving into what it means to be human, “Hamilton” is also a celebration of what it means to be American. Freedom, equality, overcoming bad circumstances through education and hard work – these are values we still strive for today, no matter how messy the political scene gets.

Alexander continually returns to his desire to leave a legacy, very similar to Achilles, who wanted to earn eternal glory through his actions on the battlefield. Did Alexander expect a man to write a musical about his life – the good parts and the bad? Did Achilles or Odysseus think that in thousands of years, college students would be reading the story of his life?

George Washington was right when he told Alexander: “You have no control / Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

This serves as a powerful reminder to us as we read (or listen to) epics. How do we learn from these characters? We have to recognize that our choices can have enormous consequences. Despite the mistakes we make or the times we feel helpless, we can always choose to keep going.

Look around at how lucky you are to be alive right now! You are the hero of your own epic. History has its eyes on you. As Alexander Hamilton says, do not throw away your shot!


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