Hamilton – An American Musical: The Facts Behind the Music Part 12: “Take a Break” and “Say No to This”

Part twelve will cover songs twenty-six and twenty-seven: “Take a Break” and “Say No to This,” the steamiest song of the musical.

We left off with Washington telling Hamilton that he needed to find a compromise to get his financial plan through Congress.  This part will take us through Hamilton’s life as he worked to get that plan passed.

“Take a Break” opens with Eliza and Philip singing to nine in French (and then in English).  Then Hamilton sings to his dearest Angelica with a spattering of Macbeth references:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day. I trust you’ll understand the reference to another Scottish tragedy without my having to name the play. They think me Macbeth, and ambition is my folly; I’m a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive pain. Madison is Banquo, Jefferson’s Macduff, and Birnam Wood is Congress on its way to Dunsinane.”

The opening line here is taken directly from Shakespeare’s Macbeth as part of Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 5, Scene 5.[1]

As for Hamilton’s comparisons to the characters in Shakespeare’s play –

  • Macbeth was a soldier, and a powerful man, as was Hamilton.  When Macbeth obtains the highest power, however, he rules as a tyrant.  Hamilton’s enemies think he will do the same.
  • Banquo is ambitious, but does not generally act upon his ambitions.  This is how we see Madison in the musical.
  • Macduff (Jefferson) is Macbeth’s (Hamilton’s) enemy.[2]

Different scenes in Acts 4 and 5 of the play explain the final part of this quote.  In Act 4, Scene 1 it is said that “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill Shall come against him.”  What the hell does that mean?  It means that Macbeth believes he will never be vanquished, because he doesn’t see how the forest (Birnam Wood) could ever be uprooted and moved up the hill.  Too bad Macbeth took the words literally.  In Act 5, Scene 4 of the play we see Macbeth’s enemies at Birnam Wood and “every soldier hew him down a bough and bear’t before him.”  And just like that, Birnam Wood becomes cover for the soldiers as they approach Dunsinane.  In the following scene a messenger comes to Macbeth to warn him, “I look’d toward Birnam, and anon, methought, the wood began to move.”  And so Birnam Wood (Congress) is on its way to Dunsinane to vanquish Macbeth (Hamilton).  Okay, enough Shakespeare.

Hamilton’s letter-writing to Angelica (who is an ocean away) is interrupted by Eliza, who calls for him to come see his son Philip play piano on his ninth birthday.  This would put us in the year 1791.  As part of Philip’s song he sings, “I have a sister but I want a little brother.”  Lin-Manuel Miranda seems to ignore siblings when convenient (he did the same with the Schuyler children).  Philip was born in 1782, and his sister, Angelica, was born in 1784.  Before he was nine Philip already had two brothers, Alexander Junior (born in 1786) and James Alexander (born in 1788).[3]

Eliza attempts to get Alexander to “take a break” and go upstate (to Albany, NY) to stay with her father for the summer, but he demurs, claiming he has “so much on my plate.”  In the meantime, a letter arrives from Angelica for Alexander.  In this letter Angelica writes (sings), “In a letter I received from you two weeks ago I noticed a comma in the middle of a phrase. It changed the meaning. Did you intend this?…It says: My dearest, Angelica, with a comma after dearest.”  In real life, however, the author of this comma was reversed; it was Angelica who placed the comma in the middle of a phrase and Alexander who questioned its intentions. (The explanation of this song is turning out to be more of an English lesson than a History lesson….)

In a letter dated October 2, 1787, Angelica wrote, “Indeed my dear, Sir if my path was strewed with as many roses, as you have filled your letter with compliments, I should not now lament my absence from America.”  If punctuation matters, Angelica has called Alexander ‘my dear’ which has a different meaning from ‘my dear Sir,’ which is how it would read without the comma.  Alexander responded in a letter dated December 12, 1787, “You ladies despise the pedantry of punctuation. There was a most critical comma in your last letter. It is my interest that it should have been designed; but I presume it was accidental. Unriddle this if you can.”  Who doesn’t love eighteenth century flirtation?

Angelica next sings, “I’m coming home this summer at my sister’s invitation.”  In reality, Angelica and her husband left the U.S. in November 1789, following Washington’s inauguration, and did not return until the spring of 1797,[4] so she was not home in the summer of 1791.

When Angelica arrives in the musical, Eliza sings, “Angelica, tell this man John Adams spends the summer with his family” (which was true) and Alexander responds, “Angelica, tell my wife John Adams doesn’t have a real job anyway.”  John Adams felt his job as VP was largely insignificant and mostly pointless.  In one of his first conversations with Congress Adams said, “I feel a great difficulty how to act.  I am Vice President.  In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.  But I am President also of the Senate.  When the President comes into the Senate, what shall I be?”[5]  He complained often about the office of the Vice President and its uselessness.  In a letter to his wife Abigail, dated December 19, 1793, he wrote, “my Country has in its Wisdom contrived for me, the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived: and as I can do neither good nor Evil, I must be born away by Others and meet the common Fate.”  And you wonder why they say, “Sit down John, you….”

Okay, there’s one last Macbeth reference before we move along to the next song.  Angelica sings, “Screw your courage to the sticking place.”  In Act 1, Scene 7 of the play, Lady Macbeth uses those words to encourage Macbeth to murder the king.  After Macbeth asks, “If we should fail?” she says, “Screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we’ll not fail.”

“Take a Break” goes right into “Say No to This” with an introduction from Aaron Burr.  Burr sings, “Someone under stress meets someone looking pretty. There’s trouble in the air, you can smell it. And Alexander’s by himself. I’ll let him tell it.”  Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds began in the summer of 1791, though it wasn’t until 1797 that he told the story (which is really the thirty-seventh song of the musical – “The Reynolds Pamphlet” – though we have to touch on some of the pamphlet now).  Hamilton was in Philadelphia (at 79 South Third Street), apparently still with Eliza, “when Miss Maria Reynolds walked into my life.”  Chernow wrote that she appeared “as the mysterious Mrs. Reynolds” in the 1791 city directory, and was “virtually the only person to appear without a first name.”[6]

Maria sings, “My husband’s doin’ me wrong – beatin’ me, cheatin’ me, mistreatin’ me. Suddenly he’s up and gone. I don’t have the means to go on.”  In the Reynolds Pamphlet, Hamilton wrote, “that her husband, who for a long time had treated her very cruelly, had lately left her, to live with another woman, and in so destitute a condition, that though desirous of returning to her friends she had not the means.”

Hamilton sings, “So I offered her a loan, I offered to walk her home.”  This is not the case.  With Eliza at home Hamilton had to wait for a more opportune time.  He wrote in the Reynolds Pamphlet, “In the evening I put a bank-bill in my pocket and went to the house.”  Hamilton sang, “She lived a block away.”  Her house was located at 154 South Fourth Street – to walk from one to the other was probably about five minutes.  It’s more like two blocks though.

Next, Hamilton tells us that he said, “Well, I should head back home,” but “she turned red, she led me to her bed, let her legs spread,” and said, “Stay.”  Hamilton wrote in the Reynolds Pamphlet, that when he arrived at the house, he “inquired for Mrs. Reynolds and was shewn up stairs, at the head of which she met me and conducted me into a bed room. I took the bill out of my pocket and gave it to her. Some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.”  Hmmm….

Hamilton sings, “I wish I could say that was the last time I said that last time. It became a pastime.”  He did write that they met frequently, and that “The intercourse with Mrs. Reynolds…continued.”  Then Hamilton received a letter from a Mister James Reynolds:

Dear Sir, I hope this letter finds you in good health and in a prosperous enough position to put wealth in the pockets of people like me, down on their luck. You see, that was my wife who you decided to” [Hamilton] “Fuuuu” Reynolds continues in the musical, “Time to pay the piper for the pants you unbuckled. And hey, you can keep seein’ my whore wife if the price is right. If not I’m telling your wife.”  Hamilton sings, “I hid the letter and I raced to her place.”  Mr. Reynolds did indeed write Hamilton a letter (dated December 15, 1791), and although he didn’t use those words in the musical, that’s pretty much the gist of it.  An interesting part of what Reynolds did really write to Hamilton: “you took the advantage a poor Broken harted woman. instead of being a Friend. you have acted the part of the most Cruelist man in existance. you have made a whole family miserable.”  Maria wrote to him later on the same day that James “has swore that If you do not answer It or If he dose not se or hear from you to day he will write Mrs. Hamilton he has just Gone oute and I am a Lone I think you had better come here….do not rite to him no not a Line but come here soon.”  Despite this, a month later, Alexander claimed he received another letter from Mr. Reynolds in which “Reynolds invites me to renew my visits to his wife.”

In the end, Mr. Reynolds asks, “So?” and Hamilton responds, “Nobody needs to know.” According to Hamilton’s account in the Reynolds Pamphlet, he received a letter on the 19th from Mr. Reynolds,” the essence of which is that he was willing to take a thousand dollars as the plaister of his wounded honor. I determined to give it to him, and did so in two payments.”

Before closing I’d like to share an interesting letter from Alexander to Eliza, written on August 21, 1791, while his affair with Maria Reynolds was still new.  He wrote,

“You said that you would not stay longer at Albany than twenty days which would bring it to the first of September. How delighted shall I be to receive you again to my bosom & to embrace with you my precious children. And yet much as I long for this happy moment, my extreme anxiety for the restoration of your health will reconcile me to your staying longer where you are upon condition that you really receive benefit from it, and that your own mind is at ease. But I do not believe that I shall permit you to be so long absent from me another time. Be chearful be happy my beloved, and if possible return to your husband with that sweet bloom in your looks which can never fail to delight him.”

How sweet of him, right?




[1] Macbeth’s Soliloquy (Act 5, Scene 5)
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
[2] Much like a high school student studying Shakespeare and trying to figure out what I just read, I turned to Sparknotes for the character information.
[3] Hamilton also had four more children – John Church (born 1792), William Stephen (born 1797), Eliza (born 1799), and Philip (born 1802, and named after the first Philip who was killed in a duel less than eight months before his birth).
[4] Hamilton’s letter to Angelica on her departure from the U.S. in 1789 can be found here.  The information on her arrival back in the U.S. can be found here, specifically at the fourth footnote.
[5] Quoted from McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.  Page 402. McCullough wrote that the response came from Oliver Ellsworth, “That whenever the Senate are to be there, sir, you must be at the head of them.  But further, sir, I shall not pretend to say.”
[6] Chernow, 364. Chernow tells us that Eliza was home when Maria Reynolds first came asking him for assistance.
Image credit: Alexander Hamilton, painted by John Trumbull. National Portrait Gallery

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