Flying Too Close to the Sun: Destructive Ambition in Hamilton

icarus
The Fall of Icarus (detail) from the workshop of Bernard Picart, 1731.

Cultural Reference: “Icarus” (Act 2: 238)

Nate Cameron (Spring 2018)

Part I ~ Introduction

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton, documents illustrious accomplishments from the unexpected source of a bastard and orphan named Alexander Hamilton. Clear from the beginning of the show is the strength of Hamilton’s inherent motivation. In the opening song, Hamilton takes the stage with an assurance to the audience of his untapped potential. Due to his boldness, Hamilton acquires many different names from others; he is called “Creole bastard,” “whore’s son,” and, later on, “Icarus.” While the former labels are mostly the result of frustration at Hamilton’s success, the last name is used by his wife to describe his failure. Indeed, the comparison to a figure from Greek mythology reflects a sharp departure from crude insults, but provides a fitting description. In Hamilton, Miranda establishes his theme concerning the dangers of excessive ambition by connecting Alexander Hamilton’s political and personal failures to the story of Icarus. Throughout the show, untamed ambition transforms into obsession, degrading personal relationships and,  paradoxically, inhibiting professional advancement.

Part II ~ Historical Background

The story of Icarus finds its origin in Greek mythology and is recounted frequently in Classical literature. One of the longest and most well known accounts of Icarus comes from the Roman poet, Ovid, in his work the Metamorphoses. Ovid tells how Icarus fails to fly on the wings invented by his father, Daedalus (Martindale). Disregarding his father’s advice, Icarus flies too high, and the heat from the sun melts the wax of his makeshift wings, causing him to fall from the sky and meet an early demise. In his analysis, Martindale insists that Icarus’ fall is described by Ovid as being the result of unbridled “excitement,” a product of “naivety, not pride” (23). However, future references to the tale will inscribe Icarus’ fall as one of divine justice for excessive pride.

References to the flight and fall of Icarus are found in other Romans, namely Horace and Virgil. However, with these writers, the story takes on the tone of castigation. Describing the nature of Icarus’ flight, Horace says in his Odes, “We seek heaven itself in our foolishness” (1.3.36).  The shift from “excitement” identified by Martindale in Ovid to “foolishness” in Horace reveals a different understanding of Icarus’ error. Concerning Horace’s tone, Hornbeck notes that Icarus lacked “moderation, and was destroyed by his own ambition.” Implicit in such a statement is the understanding that Icarus’ death was the natural result of his own defect. Along similar lines, the poetry of Virgil departs from Ovid’s characterization of the event. The speaker claims directly to Icarus, “You also, Icarus, would have a great part in so great a work, did grief permit” (6.47-50).  Within this quote is an acknowledgement of the cost of Icarus’ fall (Putnam). In this sense, Virgil and Horace write in such a way as to pass judgment on Icarus, finding fault in his inability to be satisfied.

Centuries later in 1667, John Milton uses the Greek myth to connect the ambition of Icarus to the original sin of Satan, and his subsequent fall through Chaos. In doing so, Milton synchronizes with the “epic tradition beginning with the flying Daedalus and Icarus” (Quint). By connecting the story to one of Christian tradition, Milton reinforces the perspective expressed by Horace and Virgil. “Either one is one the way up to God and heaven,” asserts Quint, or one is simply “condemned to a terrifying fall into untold, oceanic depths.” Again, the representation by Milton understands Icarus as bearing the penalty for his ambition. Furthermore, Milton adds an increased measure of weight to the reference by connecting Icarus with an original force of evil. For example, Satan’s fall is described by Isaiah, who says, “How art thou fallen, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” (Isa. 14:12-14).  The sentiment is continued by Jonathan Edwards who speaks of religious sinners as being “always being exposed to fall” (Edwards). The use of the word “fall” is again used to indicate moral failure, strengthening the indictment upon Icarus. In this way, Milton completes an understanding of Icarus’ flight to the heavens as one of sinful pride, and his fall is merely a just punishment.

Part III ~ The Scene Where It Happens

Given the extensive history of literary allusions to the tale of Icarus and Daedalus and the ambition of Alexander Hamilton, it is not surprising when a reference makes its way into Hamilton. Following a string of egregious mistakes, Hamilton is likened to Icarus. The comparison comes from Eliza, who is reflecting on her new relationship to her husband following his affair and political obsessions. The reference to Icarus arrives in the show in order to define the nature of Hamilton’s errors. Specifically, Eliza claims Hamilton has “flown too close to the sun” (Miranda 238). In this moment, Eliza is condemning Hamilton’s ambition, manifested in his inability to ever rest from his work and his failure to remain faithful to his family. Through the reference, the audience understands Hamilton’s error as one not of omission or unmet expectations. Rather, Hamilton has tried to accomplish too much at once, sacrificing the well-being of his family.

The reference is indicative of the lack of control Eliza holds over her husband. Indeed, Eliza becomes a Daedalus-figure in her song, “Burn.” Within Virgil’s account, the speaker describes how Icarus’ father, Daedalus, attempted to make a sculpture of his son following his death, but his grief blocked these attempts (Putnam, 45). In the same way, Eliza does not allow herself emotional proximity to her husband, choosing to burn all his letters (Miranda, 238). The reference to Icarus in this moment provides insight on the nature of Eliza and Hamilton’s relationship when using the backdrop of Daedalus and his son. Specifically, the audience understands Eliza has little control over her husband. The result of emotional distance, Eliza functions as a spectator to her husband’s failure. Just as Daedalus could only watch as his son fell, Eliza is unable to affect change to her husband’s reckless need to be advancing.

Part IV ~ Thematic Connections

Miranda attempts to show how ambition can turn from admirable and productive to selfish and destructive. Indeed, the plot of Hamilton is driven largely by a central characteristic of Alexander Hamilton—ambition. When asked about his identity and future plan of action, the young Hamilton responds forcefully, “I am not throwing away my shot” (Miranda 26). The statement provides the preface for Hamilton’s self-acclaimed identity. Hamilton makes it clear that he is unwilling to let opportunity slip past, and he refuses to remain stagnant. Instead, he understands his talents, and the world which remains open to him if he is able to keep hold of his “shot.” This idea gets further expressed in his ambitious mission to “fly above my station” (Miranda 104). Hamilton understands his life as one which must be constantly moving forward, and into greater positions of influence. It is this nearly compulsive need to be constantly advancing that characterizes Hamilton’s ambition, and provides energy for the plot. Yet the “fly above” Hamilton expresses will quickly turn to flying “too close to the sun.” The shift in perspective is one of the production’s means of highlighting ambition’s hidden dangers.

In addition to being a catalyst for personal achievement, the ambition of Hamilton can function as a barrier between himself and others. Hamilton is unable to extricate himself from his professional desires, ultimately bringing harm to his personal life. In “Take a Break,” Eliza begs Hamilton to stop working briefly in order to spend time with family. Regretfully, Hamilton refuses the offer to join his wife and children, not stopping his work for even a moment. Citing his need to work, Hamilton claims, “I’ll lose my job if I don’t get my plan through congress” (Miranda 170). Interestingly, Hamilton mirrors Icarus in failing to adhere to the advice of someone concerned for his welfare, in this case, Eliza. Furthermore, much of this pressure is self-procured, as he repeats to himself, “I can’t stop until I get this plan through congress” at the end of the song (Miranda, 170). In this way, the excess of Hamilton’s ambition begins to function more like obsession, causing Hamilton to bring harm unto himself and the unity of his family. Rather than provide opportunities for growth, Hamilton’s aspirations bring about relational destruction, as they operate in a destructive manner.

Just as Hamilton’s ambition begins to poison his personal life, so too does it set him up for political failure. His continual obsession with the aforementioned financial plan leads him to compromise on long-held convictions. He explains to Burr that at long last, he must follow Burr’s advice to “talk less” and “smile more,” contrary to his hitherto confrontational, robust personality. Specifically, Hamilton confesses his plan to “do whatever it takes to get my plan on the congress floor” (Miranda, 23, 186). “Whatever it takes” means Hamilton will compromise on other values in order to secure votes for his long-awaited financial plan. Again, Hamilton resembles Icarus flying too close to the sun in that he creates the environment necessary for his own downfall. Burr, blinded by his own ambition, is able to capitalize on this compromise, and strengthen public perception that Hamilton is “crooked,” securing a seat in the Senate (Miranda, 191). Likewise, these actions allow Hamilton’s other enemy, Jefferson, to find fuel for insult, as Jefferson understands Hamilton’s weakness for ambition, labeling him “desperate to rise above his station” (Miranda, 193). The word “desperate” is crucial for understanding the difference between fruitful ambition, and unhealthy obsession, the latter from which Hamilton seems to suffer.

Although he operates through a different method, Aaron Burr experiences his own fall as a result of unhealthy ambition.  Similar to Hamilton’s self-acclaimed mission statement to never throw away his “shot,” Burr operates under the enormous pressure of his “legacy to protect” (Miranda 91). When faced with a defeat in the Presidential election, Burr understands Hamilton’s endorsement of his opponent as a personal attack. He claims of Hamilton that his actions were carried out “just to keep me [Burr] from winning” (Miranda 266). As a result, Burr challenges Hamilton to a duel, ultimately taking his life. Filled with regret following his shot, Burr claims “now I’m the villain in your history” (Miranda 275). Because Burr’s ambition took the shape of obsession, the result is a destruction of the very image he is attempting to protect. Burr too, falls out of a relational experience with Hamilton, noting with regret, “the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me” (Miranda 275). Burr’s ambition functions to narrow his vision of the world, allowing him only time to consider his own perspective and mission. Not unlike Hamilton and Icarus, Burr allows his aspirations to condense into obsession, creating the environment for his own fall.

Part V ~ Concluding Thoughts

Hamilton is a show cataloguing the essential ingredient of ambition in formulating success. In his efforts to speak to personal and national ambition, Miranda writes on the foundations of a long history on the topic. Beginning with Ovid, the tale of Icarus and his fall to death are used to express caution to those who would disregard their family and values in exchange for increased success. In the same way, Alexander Hamilton suffers the consequences of untamed ambition, earning him a comparison to Icarus. The result for each is destruction; Icarus suffers physical death, while Hamilton experiences deep losses in personal intimacy and political influence. The lives and actions of Hamilton and his enemy, Burr, are the vehicles through which the musical carries on the tradition founded in Icarus. In this way, Hamilton provides a warning to the danger of ambition turning to obsession.

 

References

Edwards, Jonathan. “Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University.” Jonathan Edwards Center, 1741.

“Horace: The Odes.” Poetry in Translation, http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/HoraceOdesBkI.php#anchor_Toc39402009.

Hornbeck, Cynthia. “Caelum ipsum petimus: Daedalus and Icarus in Horace’s Odes’.” The Classical Journal, vol. 109, no. 2, 2013, p. 147+. Academic OneFile.

Martindale, Charles. Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Miranda, Lin-Manuel, and Jeremy McCarter. Hamilton: the Revolution. Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

Putnam, Michael C. J. Virgil’s Aeneid: Interpretation and Influence. University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Quint, David. “Fear of falling: Icarus, Phaethon, and Lucretius in Paradise Lost.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 3, 2004, p. 847+. Academic OneFile.

The Internet Classics Archive | The Aeneid by Virgil, classics.mit.edu/Virgil/aeneid.html.

The Internet Classics Archive | Metamorphoses by Ovid, classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.8.eighth.html.

One thought on “Flying Too Close to the Sun: Destructive Ambition in Hamilton

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s