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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Woman of the Month: Eliza Hamilton


Eliza Hamilton from Hamilton
I've delayed her coverage for two months now, so it's well past time to focus on Eliza Hamilton née Schuyler – who also happens to be the first female character from the theatre (who in turn is based on a real woman) I've showcased on this blog. Eliza is best known as the wife of founding father Alexander Hamilton, and her characterization is based on feminine attributes that are seldom lauded, always expected, and often demeaned: steadfastness, clemency, and endurance.
She gets three key lines over the course of the show. In the first she implores her husband: "let me be part of the narrative." For Eliza and her sister Angelica, life is lived on the outskirts of the history that's being made all around them. But whereas Angelica is outgoing and astute (her refrain is "I will never be satisfied", in contrast with Eliza's "that would be enough") she can never enter the man's sphere in order to have the influence she longs for.
Eliza is more content with domesticity and motherhood, but also knows that the work she does will never be as respected as that of her husband's. And she's right. In the wake of Alexander's betrayal and her own public humiliation, she sings: "I'm erasing myself from the narrative."
It's an ingenious way of according her agency in a situation where she otherwise has none, portraying her as burning Hamilton's letters and singing: "let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart ... the world has no right to my heart, the world has no place in our bed, they don't get to know what I said." She becomes the custodian of what does and does not get recorded in the history books, with the show positing that the lack of information about Eliza's thoughts and feelings at this time was not due to the indifference of male historians, but a direct result of her own actions.  
Yet finally, in the show's closing number Eliza steps forward and announces: "I put myself back in the narrative", going on to list her many achievements after Hamilton's death: interviewing soldiers, raising funds for the Washington Monument, speaking out against slavery, and opening the first private orphanage in New York City.
Hamilton therefore closes on a note of Eliza's achievements that take place after her role as wife to Alexander, and reemphasises her importance in what we know about her husband's life, especially in comparison to what we know about her. It's an extraordinarily clever way of commenting on history's lack of interest in women: by putting Eliza in control of the narrative that is told to this day.
As Constance Gibbs said: "Eliza Hamilton makes it clear that without women, even some of history’s smartest, most powerful, most talented men would be resting in obscurity. Without her, this amazing piece of art, this life-changing phenomenon couldn’t exist. And for that, she is the true hero of Hamilton."

4 comments:

  1. I really adore what Hamilton the musical did with her. I'm always used to the "spirited and headstrong" / "sweet and compliant" dichotomy with women in fiction, especially with sisters (Elizabeth and Jane Bennett, Jo and Beth March, even Anna and Elsa in Frozen to an extent). Almost universally, the quieter character left with less nuance and narrative focus while the spirited character changes her destiny (and probably her sister's) and gets the respect and relatability of the audience. The way Eliza stays true to those qualities that make her HER, but still manages to be portrayed as strong in will and heart, and emerges as the ultimate hero of the story (in my opinion) who has the most impact on how things are remembered, just means a lot to me. Especially as someone who has always related to BOTH sides of the common dichotomy, and has always hated that my sweet and often compliant and compassionate and trusting side is portrayed as either weak and flat or the Ultimate Object For Men Who Want A Submissive Wife. Even the way Eliza's motherhood is important to her character, but NOT because she "raises someone who then goes out and changes the world." She's a mother AND changes the world herself. Thanks for featuring her!

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    1. Very true what you've said - and it would be interesting to find a story that has the spirited & headstrong/sweet & compliant dichotomy between two female characters and have the former marry/have children and the latter stay (happily) single. It's almost always the other way around, though that twist in expectations would be very intriguing to write/read.

      But going back to Eliza, I think it's fun to consider the possibility that the "Hamilton" of the title actually refers to HER and not Alexander. After all, she's the answer to the question in the final number: "who tells your story?"

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    2. Oh my goodness I love that!!! Oh Eliza <3 I have so many emotions over her! Someone on tumblr pointed out that, interestingly enough, the song in which she makes a point of erasing herself from the narrative of history is the point at which she most firmly asserts her place in the narrative of the musical - it's the first time she's singing solo (something that doesn't actually happen a lot in Hamilton, the Company is very involved in most of the songs), narrating her own thoughts and actions, not in a supportive role to anyone else. Even "Helpless" has a lot of ensemble involvement. "Burn" is where she's the only focus. The final number always makes me cry!

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    3. It's a beautiful song, and in fact the song I first heard from the musical that got me hooked!

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