Deconstructing Hamilton, III: Motivating Factors

By Tara Dalton

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Via WSJ

“You have married an Icarus; he has flown too close to the sun.”

Throughout “Hamilton,” a continuing motif is control. Characters giving in to obstacles, rising above them, and even molding their chances to their benefit; it feels as though life is treated as a game, one in which moves are made with purpose and time is limited. Characters differ on what success they aim for. Alexander wants legacy, Burr wants power, while Eliza wants family.

From these overlapping lives that comprise this American Revolution, one takeaway would certainly be that even the most motivated players are dealt limited hands. Some, as noted in past columns, are methodical with their allotment, while others are far less calculating. As in life.

Angelica and Eliza Schuyler perhaps embody these two poles most clearly. “Helpless,” sung from Eliza’s perspective, is a reveling in the emotion out of one’s control. Overwhelmed with affection, Eliza sees only Alexander’s charms, and in lines such as “That boy is mine, that boy is mine!” seems amazed at her luck. Optimistic, maybe* to a fault, she considers her situation one of incredible chance. Angelica Schuyler is Eliza’s greatest supporter, and her complete opposite. In “Satisfied,” sung by Angelica, Alexander is not simply charming, but a flirt. He’s smart, but consequently, knows the value in marrying a wealthy Schuyler sister. Though Angelica sees him romantically, she determines that she’s not in a position to do anything about it because of her need to marry wealthy.

The same ballroom scene plays strikingly differently from either sister’s perspective. To Angelica, Alexander will never be satisfied, and to Eliza, a life with him is all she needs. Both narrations are truthful; foreshadowing abounds. These views endure for some time. To listen again to these sentiments, is to feel a sense of foreboding for what is to come in the second act.

To do the things I’ve dreamed about, but never done before

Is there something wrong in Eliza’s trusting nature? Or when Angelica acts on behalf of Eliza, and strategically chooses to not follow her feelings for Alexander, is she right?  Do their actions ultimately benefit them, or should they have acted differently? Certainly “Hamilton” delves as deeply into the murkiness in human interaction as into the persnickety nature of chance.

With Alexander’s cheating, the release of the Reynolds pamphlet, and the death of Philip, the wishes of Eliza in “That Would be Enough” seem retrospectively, far more loaded. When Eliza says she doesn’t need money or a legacy, just Alexander to stay alive, she continues on to say “we could be enough.” In the second act after Hamilton publishes the details of his affair to clear his name, Eliza sings in “Burn,” sounding disillusioned, “you and your words, obsessed with your legacy…you are paranoid in every paragraph how they perceive you.” She repeats the word “you,” twisting it, simultaneously expressing frustration, and sadness. There is a clear tension between what Eliza and Alexander want. Eliza would have been satisfied with a long life with Alexander, and their family. Alexander, as repeated throughout the show, needs to build his legacy.

Characters vary in their ambitions, yet they all, regardless of these distinctions, seem to have missed fulfilling completely their ideas of success.

Control is fleeting. Compared to previous discussions of variances in station or perception, differing motivations have as strong an influence over action. Burr “talk[s] less,” to try to gain power. Hamilton doesn’t hesitate, because he is desperate to leave his legacy before he runs out of time. Motivation serves as a metric by which to evaluate action. To me, there is a tension between these career goals, and Eliza’s seemingly less demanding goals. Success is after all a matter of perspective.  It can be defined narrowly, or by an emotion as deceivingly simple as happiness.

Tara Dalton is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email her at theater@nyunews.com

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