Hamilton and Literary Terms

I am such a nerd.

I went to work today with an urge to listen to Hamilton in the car, which turned out to be a pretty fortuitous decision.

See, months after I’ve finally moved past the fan phase where I listened to the soundtrack daily in its completeness I still have fragments of songs come into my head unbidden at all hours of the day.  This typically isn’t a big deal; it’s just like having a chronic earworm that I can’t bring myself to be annoyed by, because even in isolation I still get gobsmacked examining Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics.  They’re packed with tons of intricate wordplay and incredibly musical flourishes.

That’s all kind of a tangent, but it serves to say that I had a bunch of Hamilton bouncing around in my head today when I went into work, and it just so happened that we’re beginning our unit on literary terms in my tenth grade classes.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Unfortunately, I didn’t put together the materials for introducing literary terms; I’m brand new at my school, and we do a sort of group planning with all the grade level teachers (plus me, as the co-teacher for a couple of the regular ed folks).  It’s a cool way to build lessons and lean on one another for support and ideas, but being the newbie means that I’m mostly just going along with what’s already been assembled.

So when we got to the point in the first class when it was time to start explaining literary terms and provide examples, my mind immediately went to Hamilton.  Sadly, I was scatterbrained and not leading that portion of the lesson, so I alternated between having examples that were probably too complex (demonstrating multiple sound devices in the same line) or included cursing (the cursing in Hamilton is one of my favorite things because it always feels like censoring it would blunt the poetry of the lines), neither of which is really good for working with teenagers (the cursing would certainly be memorable, but not really appropriate, and the complex examples would too easily create confusion between different devices).

I never had a chance to really think through some really good examples over the course of the day, but the idea stuck with me on the way home, and now I want to see if I can isolate some specific lines to present to students sometime in the future.  So that’s what I’m going to do here.  We’ll see how successful I am.

Sound Devices

  • Alliteration – “Constantly confusing, confounding the British henchmen / Everyone give it up for America’s favorite fighting Frenchman!” (Burr, “Guns and Ships”)
  • Repetition – “Unimportant, / There’s a million things I haven’t done, / but just you wait, just you wait…” (Hamilton, “Satisfied”)
  • Assonance – “I’m in the Cabinet, I am complicit / in watching him grabbin’ at power / and kissin’ it. / Washington isn’t gonna listen / to disciplined dissidence / this is the difference / this kid is out!” (Jefferson, “Washington on Your Side”)
  • Consonance – “The conversation lasted two minutes, maybe three minutes / everything we said in total agreement. / It’s a dream and it’s a bit of a dance / a bit of a posture, it’s a bit of a stance.” (Angelica, “Satisfied”)
  • Onomatopoiea – “You walked in, and my heart went boom.” (Eliza, “Helpless”)

Figurative Language

  • Imagery – “It’s the feeling of freedom, / of seeing the light. / It’s Ben Franklin with the key and the kite! / You see it right?” (Angelica, “Satisfied”)
  • Metaphor – “I’m a diamond in the rough, a shining piece of coal” (Hamilton, “My Shot”)
  • Simile – “It’s like Ben Franklin with the key and the kite. / You see it, right?” (Angelica, “Satisfied”)
  • Personification – “-Who’s your defendant? / -The new US Constitution.” (Burr & Hamilton, “Nonstop”)
  • Hyperbole – “You are the worst, Burr.” (LaFayette, “Story of Tonight (Reprise)”)

I’m sure there are other examples.  It is a two and a half hour soundtrack after all.  If you think of any that strike you as potentially good examples (or even as potentially good sections to pull out for a practice activity in identification), feel free to note them in the comments.

Update: I’m adding a link in this post to a more recent one I did analyzing the literary devices in the opening song “Alexander Hamilton.”  I’m toying with the idea of doing more of these, but they’re on hold for now while I sort out other stuff.


17 thoughts on “Hamilton and Literary Terms

  1. Do you know if alliteration, onomatopoeia, and repetition are in Hurricane? If so , could you tell me where? I’m doing a project and I’m looking for some help.

    • “Hurricane” has a few good examples of repetition and alliteration, but there’s no onomatopoeia to speak of (because it’s a more meditative song that’s about making a crucial decision, you don’t tend to get much language designed to convey a sense of action the way that onomatopoeia does).

      For repetition and alliteration, you should look at the stanza in the midpoint of the song when Alexander is working himself up to writing a confession by listing off all the times he turned things in his favor by writing:

      I wrote my way out of hell
      I wrote my way to revolution
      I was louder than the crack in the bell
      I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell
      I wrote about the Constitution and defended it well
      And in the face of ignorance and resistance
      I wrote financial systems into existence
      And when my prayers to God were met with indifference
      I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance!

      Alexander uses the refrain “I wrote” as this way to build momentum towards the big turning point of the song when he decides that he’s going to double down on what has always worked for him in the past. The alliteration comes in at the very end with the line, “I picked up a pen.” It’s a hard exclamation point to let the audience know that this is what he’s going to do now.

      Hope that helps, and good luck with your project!

    • Also the alliteration “between the Sinners and the Saints”, or is it not?
      Ah I loved everything written in this post, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius when it comes to writing the lyrics!! That’s why the whole musical gets stuck in the head for so long – not everything can be analysed and captures only after the one time of listening!

  2. what about “History obliterates, in every picture it PAINTS
    It Paints me and all my MISTAKES
    When Alexander aimed at the SKY
    He may have been the first one to DIE

    • The central refrain of the song (“I’m not throwin’ away my shot”) is metaphorical. Hamilton’s talking about not passing up an opportunity to make a name for himself, but he’s speaking figuratively about these opportunities as shots. There’s some playfulness around the phrase because “taking a shot” is usually a sports metaphor in modern conversation (lots of sports involve “shooting” a ball at a goal), but because this is Hamilton, we also understand the context of how his life ended (in a duel with pistols). The story of the musical sets up this deeper irony because it frames Hamilton as choosing not to seriously duel Burr because he’s tired of confrontation by that point in his life.

    • The whole idea of Hamilton saying that he is not throwing away his shot is irony because in the end, he did throw away his shot.

  3. Was listening to “Satisfied” in the car on the way to work where I was to roll out sound devices…. and it hit me. I’m going to use it to help my students connect the sound devices to the characterization of the sisters…Angelica is all about the long /i/ and Eliza is swooning with her breathing sounds in helpless…. I want them to bridge the analysis between sound to character to mood.

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