On Friday I made a post about Hamilton’s use of framing devices. Here, I’m going to talk about Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton’s rivalry in terms of writing, and what we can learn from it in terms of crafting complex, well-thought out character relationships.
(Plus a bit more literary analysis. Some fangirls write slash fic. I write essays. Sorry guys.)
The Use of Parallels
Hamilton and Burr make such compelling rivals because they foil one another, but also develop in parallel. Their core ideologies are vastly different (or appear to be—more on this later), but their career trajectories lead them along the same path. Both of them were high achieving students. Both fought in the revolution. Both started families at the same time, practiced law, and found their way into politics.
The parallels serve three main functions. First, they allow viewers to get a sense of how the two characters do the same things differently, and how their ideologies color the way that they act in similar situations. The fact that they have so much in common actually makes it much easier to compare them and to spot the ways in which they’re different.
Second, the parallels humanize Burr and garner sympathy for him. They create an organic way for the show to give glimpses into his personal life, and they draw a positive connection between him and a character who the audience already empathizes with. More so because it gives viewers a look at all of the times that he’s passed over in favor of Hamilton. Coupled with the inclusion of his own POV, by the end of the play the audience has a solid understanding of his motives.
Third, they create a sense of camaraderie between the characters. The two have many shared experiences and spend as much of the play as friends and colleagues as they do enemies. This adds a layer of nuance to their interactions and creates tension between them. When they’re friendly, their rivalry lurks in the subtext. When they’re at odds, their past friendship is still hanging in the air between them.
Symbolism: How It’s Set Up and How It Breaks Down
The play sets up the two characters as symbols. Initially, Hamilton is a bit stiff and awkward but also unflaggingly earnest and genuine. In his first few scenes, his stage presence is intentionally lacking and his actions are understated. He means what he says, but he is not a performer. Coupled with the way that Burr critiques his openness, Hamilton becomes a symbol for unfiltered honesty.
Meanwhile, Burr is all polish. He has the presence that Hamilton lacks and he knows how to occupy the stage. As a counterpoint to Hamilton, he is established as a symbol for glibness. If Hamilton is the raw and unfiltered truth, Burr is gloss and embellishment. There is a clear line between truth and lies, and these two stand on opposite sides. But as the story goes on, they begin to converge.
In the style of a Shakespearean villain, Burr is open about his desire to deceive. But in laying out that he wishes to remain inscrutable, he actually provides viewers with a glimpse of how his mind works. Burr is honest about his own dishonesty. What’s more, by acting as the primary narrator, viewers often get to see the story filtered through his own perspective. By the end of the play, Burr is possibly one of the best understood characters. We know what he wants. We know what makes him tick. We know why things unfolded the way that they did.
Burr’s alignment with falsehood and glibness begins to break down as he comes into clearer focus.
Meanwhile, Hamilton becomes hazier. The viewer sees his story told from so many perspectives that it becomes hard to pin down the authentic Hamilton. Each telling places narrative distance between the viewer and Hamilton himself. And in the second act, when he enters politics, Hamilton begins to perform more. At times he even has a small audience on stage. Not only is the viewer experiencing the man only through stories, but they often experience him through stories about a public persona.
Additionally, Hamilton begins to keep secrets from the audience. The genius of “The Room Where It Happens” is that the viewer sees the deal between Hamilton and Jefferson through Burr’s perspective. The audience is kept from the room where it happens, and never learns the truth about the deal. This has the effect of unsettling the viewers and shaking their trust in the title character.
The breakdown of the symbolism reflects on the way that none of the perspectives in the play are all true or all false. Each person tells their own part of the story, and each account is a mix of fact and fabrication. Their relationship and their character development comments on the story as a whole.
A Notable Reversal
The way that the two were initially set up in opposition to one another makes each reversal more notable. The first big reversal that I noticed came somewhere between “Helpless” and “Wait for It”
Hamilton’s decision to marry Eliza is narrated by two different people—Angelica and Eliza herself—but we never get his perspective. At different times, both Angelica and Burr comment on the fact that there is a major financial incentive for Hamilton to pursue one of the Schuyler sisters. Eliza omits this from her own narrative, implying that she believes their connection to be mostly romantic. But Hamilton never clarifies his reasons for going after her.
While appears that real affection develops between them, his initial motives are never given.
When watching the play, I was confused and a bit taken aback by Hamilton’s stiff, rehearsed delivery of the line “If it takes fighting a war for us to meet, it will have been worth it” (said first in “Helpless,” then repeated in “Satisfied”). But considering that he knows nothing about Eliza besides that it would benefit him to win her affections, this begins to make sense.
Shortly thereafter Burr, who claims to be interested in keeping his head down and staying out of trouble, confesses to being involved with the wife of a British officer. Not only does this not get him ahead, but it sets him back. He cannot pursue a legitimate relationship with a woman of higher status, and if his relationship is discovered it could put him in danger. She remains off stage for the duration of the play where she cannot benefit him in any way. The first lines of “Wait For It” come as an intimate moment in which he unfolds genuine feelings for Theodosia to the audience, even when he has hidden them from his friends.
As such, the romantic plots of the play subtly undercut the characterization up until that point.
The Writing Takeaway
The rivalry is effective for several reasons.
First, it is used to develop the characters, and to add complexity to them. The relationship between dynamic characters is also dynamic, and it grows with them. As the characters become more nuanced, so does the relationship. It’s also an excellent example of how a relationship can be used to develop characters. The interactions between the characters provide insight into who they are individually, and shows the positive and negative sides of both characters. No one is always a victim. No one is always an aggressor. Both have agency in the relationship and the relationship serves as a catalyst for both characters to make interesting choices.
Second, the development of the relationship is used to comment on the play’s major themes. There is a distinct arc to the way that the relationship develops. While the change is gradual, it’s also intentional and directed. Rather than being a single dangling plot thread, the relationship is crafted to uphold the larger ideas of the play.
And third, guys, this is how symbolism is done. It’s easy to spot, but also complicated in execution. It serves a purpose and comments on the big rhetorical ideas. If the viewer doesn’t spot it, the story is still enjoyable. It doesn’t bog down the story, get in the way, or require anyone to stop the play to lay out what’s going on. And rather than flattening the characters into symbols, it uses the relationship between character and concept to add depth to both.