Few stories have captured the modern American imagination like Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton, which, if you’ve been living under a rock, retells the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life. A filmed version of the musical was recently released to the public through Disney+, and that is why everyone on your newsfeed is posting gifs of the Schuyler sisters strutting through Manhattan. Though many have noted that the show is fairly historically accurate, the story is not meant to deal in realism, partly due to the impossibility of perfectly recounting history in a full-fledged fashion. To begin, we do not have full access to the inner thoughts and motivations of the historical figures, so while the characters are largely consistent with what we know, some elements of the show’s plot are educated speculation. The casting directors purposefully, and rightfully, ignored the physical descriptions of the historical figures in order to make the cast resemble modern America. And, fortunately or unfortunately as the case may be, there is no evidence that any of the musical numbers in the show were originally performed by historical figures. That is, almost certainly, an embellishment on LMM’s part.
So the show is fiction—well researched, informative, largely historically accurate fiction, but fiction nonetheless. One of the show’s challenges is that it requires us to liberally suspend our disbelief, far beyond tolerating a jaunty Thomas Jefferson kicking his way across the stage. In our literalist society, describing the show as fiction may sound like a snub, but in reality, fiction is a powerful conduit of truth. Flannery O’Connor once noted that “almost-blind” audiences need stories with “large and startling figures” to convey unfamiliar or difficult truths. As O’Connor suggests, sometimes less believable stories are even more compelling to resistant audiences. Because Hamilton falls squarely into the category of story, it’s open to O’Connor’s categorization. And indeed, it’s hard to imagine a larger or more startling character than Alexander Hamilton.Alexander is redeemed, not because he deserves it, but because Eliza grants redemption to him.
The show itself opens with a series of inquiries, questioning how, exactly, a man like Alexander was able to overcome his less-than-ideal circumstances and become a revered American legend. The company’s collective incredulity isn’t limited to questioning mere misfortune—Alexander’s nature flies in the face of the stuffy stereotypes we often impose on colonial leaders. His intense personality resists containment; even as he attempts to show restraint when he introduces himself to Aaron Burr, he quickly devolves toward awkward outbursts, presenting himself as intrusive and somewhat unruly. His emotional vigor continues to win out, and he passionately steamrolls his way through decisions, interactions, and opportunities, even when his personality makes him less than persuasive. He tries to downplay his impulsiveness as though he behaves this way on purpose, and while that may be true, Alexander is smart enough to recognize that his audacious temperament leads him to make costly mistakes.
In contrast, Aaron Burr’s quiet prudence and endless patience highlight Alexander’s foibles. The two characters share similar backgrounds and follow similar paths; both are orphans, both aspire to political power, both engage in illicit extramarital relationships, and both express a deep sense of dedication to their children. The show underlines this mirroring—the story itself, songs, and staging are all meant to bring Burr and Hamilton in stark comparison to one another, shining a spotlight on their differences by emphasizing their similarities. This kind of character parallel is known as a foil, and Hamilton is full of them. It’s obvious that we are meant to compare Burr and Alexander, and they themselves engage in this kind of comparison as well.
But Burr’s role in the show is complex. Because of his role as Alexander’s foil, Burr is uniquely positioned to narrate the story. But what begins as intrigue soon turns to pressure, then to vulnerability. Burr is threatened by Hamilton and takes his success personally, believing that the world isn’t “wide enough” for the two of them. Alexander seems to buy into this idea as well, and their relationship culminates in a rivalry that leads Alexander to betray Burr by endorsing his opponent in the election of 1800. This betrayal impacts Burr’s political career, publicly humiliates him, and is, at its core, a deeply personal attack. Burr responds to this treachery with a newfound hunger for revenge, which ultimately leads him to take Alexander’s life.
When he narrates their duel, he does not exactly confess murderous intent, claiming instead that Alexander was uniquely poised to fire and that Burr’s primary concern was staying alive for his daughter. In this way, the murder seems more like misfortune than treachery. Murder is inexcusable, and killing someone over a perceived insult may put Burr in the “large and startling figures” category. But Burr’s fury at being betrayed is a deeply human response. He is certainly justified in his anger, and it’s easy to relate to his desire for revenge while ultimately condemning his behavior.
But Alexander is not Burr’s only foil. Another character in the show is despicably betrayed by Alexander. Calm, collected, gentle Eliza falls head over heels for Alexander when they first meet. She declares herself helpless in his presence, and her gentle demeanor stands in stark contrast to Alexander’s “large and startling” character. Her quiet faith in their relationship makes his infidelity all the more heinous. Furthermore, he not only destroys his relationship with Eliza, but also gives his son advice that ultimately causes Phillip’s death. It’s not entirely fair to blame Alexander for his son’s demise, but at the same time, it’s reasonable to imagine that he shoulders some blame. Within minutes, and with horrific efficiency, Alexander manages to ruin his marriage to Eliza and rob her of her eldest child. Either of these circumstances could have resulted in Eliza claiming that Alexander ruined her life, although she refrains from making that declaration herself.
In this way, Burr and Eliza are also foils. Both suffer deeply personal betrayals from a man they trust, and both must grapple with how to respond. While Burr naturally struggles under the weight of this blow, Eliza responds with supernatural grace. She quietly processes her pain, and, in the midst of her grief, takes Alexander’s hand.
This plot only works out in the course of a story; responsible citizens of Christ’s kingdom understand that adultery is justified grounds for divorce, and Alexander’s treatment of Eliza is irresponsible at best, and conceivably abusive. People who find themselves in Eliza’s situation should not look to this story for practical solutions. But again, these are “large and startling figures” that may not be best looked to for literal guidance in any context; the show itself is hyperbolic. (For instance, no one is suggesting that we solve our conflicts with duels, either.) Instead, we should look for the principles communicated in the story.
One of the many difficulties we face when asked to forgive is that forgiveness may appear to be an excuse, like a justification or diminishment of wrong. Hamilton’s large and startling figures allow for no such illusions. Eliza’s pain is keenly felt, her injuries are fully apparent, and there is no question as to who has betrayed her. She does not forgive because her pain is minimal, but because it is significant, and she overcomes it.
This act of forgiveness grants Eliza both proximity to Alexander and power over her own future. After Burr abdicates his role as narrator, Eliza takes over, concluding the show in her own words. Many have rightfully lauded the final scene in which Eliza takes center stage and narrates. Quietly, beautifully, she defends Alexander’s legacy, explaining her continued devotion to him even after his death. She redeems his life in ways he could not accomplish himself, helping to establish a national monument and opening an orphanage in New York City. Free from bitterness, free from anger, she is free to love—her country, children in need, and her late husband. Forgiveness liberates her, and she boldly and unapologetically creates her own legacy. Alexander is redeemed, not because he deserves it, but because Eliza grants redemption to him.
It’s particularly telling that the company asks, “Can you imagine?” while watching Eliza take Alexander’s hand in an act of forgiveness. Hamilton is not an appeal for us to remember the past with exact fact and form, but to imagine. Can we imagine a man who is both malicious and charming, intellectual and unrestrained, a triumph and a failure? Can we imagine his opponents—political equals and rivals, friends and foes, competitors and allies? Can we imagine the women—strong and decisive, conniving and sacrificial, fierce and protective? And, most incredibly, can we imagine Eliza—a woman of excellent character, who invests in her family and community with striking faithfulness—can we imagine that she will suffer unfathomable betrayal, loss, and humiliation—and respond with forgiveness?