The Battle of Yorktown: Hamilton’s St. Crispian’s Day Speech

As I said in a previous post, Shakespeare’s language is my language, but his country is not my country.  This means that passages such as John of Gaunt’s speech in Richard II does not have the same effect in the US as it does in England.

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

I have never been to England, and even if I had, it is not my country, so I will never see it as a seat of Mars, another Eden, a demi-paradise.

This is very true in Henry V.  I have never seen a live production of it, and this is understandable, since it is not frequently performed in the United States.  The average American has never heard of Aginicourt, so the productions must find another way to get the audience invested in the story.  This is starkly different to how the play feels in England.  I read an interview with an actor who played Henry V at the Globe, and he said that some men showed up to the theater with their faces painted with St. George’s flag, as though it was a soccer match.  I will never experience that with Henry V.

But I do get to experience it with Hamilton.

I have mentioned Hamilton: An American Musical several times on my blog.  As I am sure everyone knows by now, it is a hip-hop musical based on the life of America’s first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton.  And I know that sounds terrible, but it’s really amazing.  Many people have made comparisons between Lin Manuel Miranda’s lyrics (my favorite part of the show) and Shakespeare.  I think that this is a valid comparison for two reasons.

First, Lin Manuel Miranda pushes the boundaries of what is possible with the everyday language.  Shakespeare did that through iambic pentameter; Lin Manuel Miranda does it through hip-hop.  My point is not that Lin Manuel Miranda is the same as Shakespeare.  I am saying that he, like Shakespeare, is using theater to expand the boundaries of what is possible in language.

Second of all, Shakespeare is called The Bard because the bard would traditionally recite poetry about the deeds of his patron.  In the pre-Christian Celtic world, they had no written language so the Bard had an important role of preserving history through the oral tradition.  Shakespeare’s history plays recount the deeds of many of the English kings of the recent past.  This is plain in works such as Henry V.  Lin Manuel Miranda did that in Hamlton: An American Musical.

I will never know what it is like to hear the St. Chrispian’s Day Speech, or Once More Unto the Breach, Dear Friends as an Englishman.  But I do know what it is like to hear The Battle of Yorktown as an American.  The Battle of Yorktown does not have the best lyrics of the show, but they work so well in conjunction of the music that the experience is truly powerful.

 

I love the Alexander’s account at the beginning.

I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory
This is where it gets me: on my feet
The enemy ahead of me
If this is the end of me, at least I have a friend with me
Weapon in my hand, a command, and my men with me
Then I remember my Eliza’s expecting me…
Not only that, my Eliza’s expecting
We gotta go, gotta get the job done
Gotta start a new nation, gotta meet my son!

I can almost see the the enemy ahead of me and feel the weapon in my hands and the ground beneath my feet.   It reminds me of Lose Yourself by Eminem.

The frenetic energy of Hercules Mulligan.

A tailor spyin’ on the British government!
I take their measurements, information and then I smuggle it!

To my brother’s revolutionary covenant
I’m runnin’ with the Sons of Liberty and I am lovin’ it!
See, that’s what happens when you up against the ruffians
We in the shit now, somebody’s gotta shovel it!
Hercules Mulligan, I need no introduction
When you knock me down I get the fuck back up again!

That gives you a real sense of who Hercules Mulligan is and the arrogance and self-confidence behind him.

Then the lyrics give you a sense of the calm, exhaustion, and numbness that follows a battle.

[Hamilton:]
After a week of fighting, a young man in a red coat stands on a parapet

[Lafayette:]
We lower our guns as he frantically waves a white handkerchief

[Mulligan:]
And just like that, it’s over. We tend to our wounded, we count our dead

[Laurens:]
Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom

[Washington:]
Not yet

This is followed by a growing sense of triumph.

We negotiate the terms of surrender
I see George Washington smile
We escort their men out of Yorktown
They stagger home single file
Tens of thousands of people flood the streets
There are screams and church bells ringing
And as our fallen foes retreat
I hear the drinking song they’re singing…

Then begins the refrain,

The world turned upside down.

Whenever I hear that, I get a sense of what the American victory in the Revolutionary War meant, not just to Hamilton and his fellow soldiers, not just to the colonies, or even to America as a whole.  I get a sense of what it meant to the history of the world.  It is an unbelievable, but exciting revelation.  I feel like cheering and crying all at once.

As I said, it is the closest I will get to the St. Crispian’s Day Speech.

 

 

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