One show will never be able to tell all the stories that deserve to be told- and certainly, it’s unfair to ask it to. However, amidst all the excitement that shows can generate, it’s imperative to remain critical of the stories chosen – and how they are delivered. This article is in no way negating the triumph and ingenuity of Hamilton, which has crossed so many political, social, and racial boundaries. I simply wish to hold the story to account and demonstrate that one must view a production uncritically, regardless of the hype.
Hamilton has been hailed by some as presenting some real feminist icons – especially in the figures of Angelica and Eliza. Their exposé song is one where they claim they are going to ‘compel [Jefferson] to include women in the sequel’ (WERK). Unfortunately, any deeper prodding at their characters, and the ostensibly feminist structure crumbles to dust in your fingertips. Boiled down, their characters prove to be mere tropes: Eliza as the ‘wet blanket wife’, Angelica as the ‘muse’, and Maria as the ‘whore’. This may seem a harsh and damning comment – but hear me out.
“any deeper prodding at their characters, and the ostensibly feminist structure crumbles to dust in your fingertips”
Eliza – beautiful, sweet, caring Eliza. How could I even begin to disparage her character? The problem lies in the fact that, in real life, Eliza was such a badass. This is hinted at in the final song, as she keeps Hamilton’s legacy alive and starts an orphanage (WHICH IS STILL THERE!). Yet in Hamilton, she is relegated to being ‘his poor wife’ (The Reynolds Pamphlet), who immediately is introduced as ‘Helpless’. Proceeding to adopt the trope of submissive wife, Eliza’s role is to provide the emotional heft of the hero, who begs him not to do the dangerous things he wants to do. Her role is to look after the children and pester Hamilton to ‘Take a Break’. In reducing Eliza to this mindless shell of a character, Miranda lost some of the real dramatic potential he had cultivated with the initial power ballad ‘The Schuyler Sisters’. Instead, Eliza fits into the expectations of the patriarchy, wherein women (according to the cult of domesticity) were only represented by the ‘cardinal virtues’ of piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. She takes a passive role within the narrative she has begged to be included in. Arguably, Eliza recovers some of that agency towards the end – especially as the takes on the task of being the one to bring the story to a close- but ultimately, this effort seems to be ‘too little, too late’. Moreover, in telling Hamilton’s tale, Eliza sacrifices her own story to promote that of her husband – which, though noble, is not a characteristic of an independent and strong female character.
The real hope of the production lies in the figure of Angelica, the go-to feminist icon in Hamilton. Rapping just as fast as her male counterparts, and in possession of a strong intellect, she flits in and out of Hamilton’s path, reminding him of what he is striving for and inspiring him to persevere. At one point, Angelica urges him to negotiate with Jefferson: ‘You must get through to Jefferson/Sit down with him and compromise/Don’t stop ‘til you agree’. Here she hints at her own latent ability to influence politics, even from a backstage position. Yet, she acknowledges that, as a woman in the eighteenth century, her actual power is limited. Though Angelica and Alexander may be equals in intellect and wit, they are not equals in status, and she is well aware of her position – and of what is expected of her – in a male-dominated society. She acknowledges this explicitly in ‘Satisfied’, as she laments: ‘I’m a girl in a world in which/My only job is to marry rich/My father has no sons so I’m the one/Who has to social climb for one’. Here, even as Angelica’s verbal dazzle is on display, so is her pragmatism: the best her eloquence can get her is a wealthy husband. To make matters worse, Miranda has admitted to subverting Angelica’s storyline to create a stronger dramatic effect: the social impossibility of a marital union between herself and Hamilton.
“I can’t help feeling [Hamilton] would benefit from receiving more critical analysis than it has hitherto been given”
In reality, Angelica was married when the pair first met. Though I grant that this is a handy dramatic tool to comment on the societal restrictions of the time, it instead seems to have the effect of stripping Angelica of her agency. So, while she has proved herself as a strong, intellectual woman, upon meeting Hamilton she turns into a pining love interest. For example, in ‘Take A Break’ she is reduced to someone whose thoughts are consumed by a misplaced comma from one man; relegating her role to that of the star-crossed lover. Not unlike Eliza, Angelica is destined by the end of the play, to be yet another woman creating the narrative of the man she loves.
Maria Reynolds is another character whose potential as a strong female character is squandered. Maria Reynolds is the mistress, whose characterisation only functions in the musical in relation to Hamilton. She seduces Hamilton in a bluesy, seductive R&B number, wherein her sole purpose is to get Hamilton into her bed. Yet even in this moment of adultery, Hamilton is not portrayed in a particularly negative light. Instead, he comes across as the duped victim, giving excuses – villainising Maria Reynolds and turning her into the one-dimensional seductress.
Don’t get me wrong- I love Hamilton (just read the other articles in this series if you don’t believe me). My argument here hinges on only one (albeit gaping) flaw in the show. Hamilton has proven to be a critical, popular, and financial success – but I can’t help feeling it would benefit from receiving more critical analysis than it has hitherto been given, as it’s only with criticism that certain issues highlighted in this article can be both addressed and corrected in future productions. (If not corrected in this particular musical, it’s certain that others that will doubtless jump in to fill the niche that Hamilton has found in Broadway). My critique is not to say Hamilton is not a deserved success: instead, it is – to use the fateful lyrics of a dying Hamilton – ‘an unfinished symphony’, novel in its endeavors, and undoubtedly a cultural phenomenon of pure ingenuity. This ‘unfinished symphony’ will open countless doors for a diverse range of actors and artists to expand upon in future Hamilton-inspired productions – in which, we hope, women will be permitted to play a much greater and more equal part.
Image: Joan Marcus