MacBeth References in Hamilton

This blog contains many Hamilton spoilers. You have been warned.

I, like much of the world, found myself enamored with Hamilton when the production was released on Disney+. I knew the soundtrack already, but seeing the production made everything much more impactful. Of course, as a Shakespeare fanatic, my ears perked up at the MacBeth references in the song Take a Break.

“My dearest, Angelica, 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 me having to name the play.

They think me MacBeth, ambition is my folly

I’m a polymath, a pain in the a** and a massive pain

Madison in Banquo, Jefferson’s MacDuff

And Birnam Wood is Congress on its way to Dunsinane.”

Now, because I simply can’t help myself, I started thinking about what these lines mean in the context of Hamilton. For those who are unfamiliar with the plot of Hamilton, I will provide the context for these lines. Alexander Hamilton is facing a potentially career-ending challenge. He has a financial plan that he must get through Congress. The problem is that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are opposed to the plan. James Madison in particular is necessary to get the Congressional votes. Hamilton is writing to his sister-in-law, Angelica, to explain the situation. He must get his plan through Congress or lose his job as Treasury Secretary.

So, let’s get into the knitty gritty of what’s being said.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

This line is one of the most famous in MacBeth. At this point, MacBeth is facing utter destruction. He is holed up in his castle with only a few followers and the rightful Scottish King marching toward him with a huge and formidable army. Amongst that chaos, he finds out that Lady MacBeth has died, presumably from suicide. Things appear to be very bleak for MacBeth and this soliloquy conveys that. He muses on the bleakness of the end.

Interestingly, this is not the quote Lin-Manuel Miranda originally wanted to go with. According to his book, Hamilton: An American Revolution, he wanted to say “They have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly./But bear like, I must fight the course.” However, the head of a Shakespeare festival told him that was far too obscure of a quote, so he went with the more recognizable option. I think it is worth looking at what both of these quotes tell us about Hamilton’s current situation.

He feels trapped. There are no other options on the table. No one else has a financial plan, so there is no place to start negotiating. This leaves Hamilton with no choice but to “fight the course” and get his plan through Congress. Angelica expresses this notion just a few lines later. The tomorrow lines still fit though, because Hamilton sees no real way out at the moment. He is stuck in an impossible situation watching the days creep by him with no real solution in sight. Bottom line, Hamilton isn’t feeling too great about himself or his situation. He’s in a dark spot, as evidenced by his horrible decision to cheat on his wife in the next song.

Ambition is my Folly

There can be no doubt that Hamilton and MacBeth are both extremely ambitious, in some cases to a fault. MacBeth is told that he will be king. At the encouragement of his wife, he pursues this fortune rather than just letting it happen. It is ambition that drives him to kill the King and it is ambition that keeps him killing. After securing the throne, he is determined to defy the fates by killing Banquo, his son, and anyone else that would oppose him. Ambition is what leads MacBeth to his own end.

Hamilton is not such an extreme example, but he is definitely ambitious to a fault. Everyone who opposes him or dislikes him finds him to be too ambitious. Aaron Burr sings entire songs about how Hamilton just goes for what he wants and takes it. Burr prefers to “wait for it,” but Hamilton jumps right in, much to Burr’s chagrin. Jefferson, likewise, finds Hamilton’s demeanor to be irritating. He repeatedly remarks on how Hamilton dresses as though it is above his station. Even Hamilton would have to admit he is ambitious because he is obsessed with the legacy he will leave behind. He wants to do great things that he will be remembered for.

Madison is Banquo

Banquo was MacBeth’s good friend. He was told by the witches that he would not be King, but his descendants would be. This made him a threat to MacBeth’s ambitions, so MacBeth killed him. Killing Banquo was a turning point for MacBeth that started him on the path toward his downfall. I’m not sure what the comparison between Madison and Banquo means for Hamilton. Madison and Hamilton worked together on the federalist papers indicating they were at least friendly at some point. They could at least work together at some point, unlike now.

However, that is no longer the case. Madison is now a direct threat to Hamilton’s legacy. Madison holds the key to the success or failure of Hamilton’s financial plan. Not only that, but if Madison secures the votes, it could potentially be Congress – and therefore Madison – that would receive the credit. This could, in a way, make Madison the inheritor of Hamilton’s legacy. Something that Hamilton could not stand to such a degree that he encouraged Washington to circumvent Madison completely. Fortunately for our democracy, Washington didn’t listen. In this moment, it’s easy to spot a little MacBeth in Alexander Hamilton.

We can’t avoid the fact that MacBeth orders Banquo’s death. Hamilton obviously doesn’t kill Madison or even take him down politically. In my opinion though, it indicates that Hamilton doesn’t see Madison as an opponent he can’t overcome. Jefferson, however, proves to be a more powerful opponent.

Jefferson MacDuff

Alexander Hamilton had a particularly contentious relationship with Thomas Jefferson. They have two entire rap battles strictly dedicated to them fighting. It’s not surprising then that Hamilton compares Jefferson to MacDuff, the Scottish nobleman that ultimately kills MacBeth. From the moment Jefferson walks onto the stage, it’s pretty clear that he’s Hamilton’s antagonist and will pose a formidable threat to Hamilton’s success. Jefferson is perhaps the only one that can possibly take down Hamilton in the same way MacDuff is the only one that can kill MacBeth.

The witches prophesied that MacBeth could not be killed by “any man of woman born.” To MacBeth, this means death is impossible. This was medieval Scotland; pretty much everyone was born naturally. Surprise though: MacDuff was delivered via c-section. This apparently means he wasn’t born of a woman, which is frankly offensive to his mother who almost certainly died. Anyway, this fact would imply that Jefferson is the only one capable of completely taking down Hamilton, at least in a political sense.

Additionally, MacDuff saw the writing on the wall with MacBeth and went to get help. He saw where Scotland was going under MacBeth’s leadership and made it his mission to depose him. Unsurprisingly, we see an echo of this with Jefferson and Hamilton. Jefferson feared for the future country Hamilton was trying to form. He fundamentally disagreed with him on what America should be, so he left. He left Washington’s cabinet to run for President. He made it his mission to make sure Hamilton didn’t gain any more power.

It’s worth noting that Jefferson has not yet left his position on the cabinet when Hamilton spoke these lines. However, the similarities are too significant to ignore.

Birnam Wood is Congress on it’s way to Dunsinane

Along with the no man of woman born prophecy, the weird sisters told MacBeth that he would meet his end when Birnam Wood marched on Dunsinane, his castle. This made MacBeth feel pretty confident since marching trees seemed highly unlikely. But, prophecies never really work that way, do they? You see the soldiers taking up arms against MacBeth was hiding in Birnam Wood, and they decided to pick up branches to conceal their numbers. Suddenly, it looked like the woods were marching on the castle. This sight signaled MacBeth’s impending defeat.

We don’t have to dig too deep to see why the situation feels similar to Hamilton’s. Taking his financial plan to Congress would mean the end of his career. The plan has to pass or Hamilton will be asked to resign. However, he doesn’t have the votes he needs for it to pass. At this point in the play, it feels like the foreboding sight of the end for Hamilton.

Unlike MacBeth though, Hamilton avoids his fate through compromise

Did I overthink these 8 lines? Probably, but sometimes it’s fun to dive a little too deep to just see what’s down there. What do you think? Did I miss any other similarities? Let me know in the comments down below.

Also, make sure to check out my podcast Breaking Bard, where I have done a couple different episodes on MacBeth and my YouTube Channel where I am about to launch a series of videos on MacBeth.

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