Now, Hamilton‘s romantic subplot hits Act 4, when shit really starts to go wrong. Previously, Hamilton made a mistake – and then made it again and again and again – by sleeping with Maria Reynolds, only to learn that this was a scheme to blackmail him. His political rivals found out, and he lost his political office and a considerable amount of clout. But, as we learned waaaaay back in Act 1, Alexander is not someone who is satisfied with having less when he feels as though he deserves more. But he has this affair and blackmail scandal hanging over his head. What’s a fellow to do?
Something very stupid.
In, “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” we see Hamilton’s profound arrogance rise up to, finally, tear him down. Burr once wondered how Hamilton could ‘take and take and take’ without consequence, but there was always going to be a moment where he would overreach. This is it, as Alexander prioritizes his political career over his family or morals or even public image, having failed to realize that those are all a part of his political life. He thought he had risen entirely on the basis of his own words and ideas, stripping away any contribution of the Schuyler name and money, any moderate tendencies introduced by having a society girl able to guide him.
See, up until now, there has always been someone to reign Hamilton in. He had a mission. Washington could give him orders, Laurens and LaFayette could keep him in check, Eliza and Angelica could keep him company and show him the social ropes. But starting with “Say No To This,” Alexander has been on his own, and, well, you saw what happened there. When Angelica, one of his closest friends and someone with whom he shares a deep emotional bond, shows up all the way from London (damn!), we’re primed to think that she’ll be able to fix it. But…
I’m not here for you.
I know my sister like I know my own mind
You will never find anyone as trusting or as kind
I love my sister more than anything in this life
I will choose her happiness over mine every time
Put what we had aside
I’m standing at her side
You could never be satisfied
God, I hope you’re satisfied
Alexander has turned away one of his most faithful friends and become the laughingstock of his political rivals. But there’s one person we don’t hear from in this song…
“Burn” is a hard song, because Eliza – a phenomenal person overall – is furious throughout it, and she’s utterly justified. It’s one of the only songs in the show where there is no chorus, not a single voice besides her own. But because of that, it’s also essential to her character development. Because Eliza has spent most of this show as a passive observer. She had her sister go talk to Alexander for her, gave credit to Alexander for wooing her and getting permission to her father. Her only ambition was to ‘be enough’ for him.
Here, she finally steps into an active role. She doesn’t just own to her own desires, but to her own anger and resentment. As the folks at Genius point out, in “That Would Be Enough,” Eliza wanted Alexander to let her be part of the narrative, while here, well…
I’m erasing myself from the narrative
Let future historians wonder how Eliza
Reacted when you broke her heart
She’s not asking anymore, and she’s not sharing the floor with anyone else. Eliza’s love for Alexander previously made her “helpless,” which she felt was a good thing. It showed the power of her love and the depth of her trust. But with that trust betrayed, she uses a different word to describe what she had been: Defenseless. The nice thing about being defenseless, however, is that she can build defenses. She can learn from this, and grow.
She’ll just have to grow apart from Alexander to do so. Thankfully, she has the rest of her family…
Alexander’s obsession with legacy and pride and recent guilt over what he did to Eliza mingle here to deepen the tragedy. Alexander’s son, Philip, is away at college, but when someone speaks ill about his embattled father’s legacy, Philip does what he knows his hot-blooded father would have done: He challenges the man to a duel. But when he approaches his father, now mournful and melancholy, for advice, Alexander tells him:
Alright. So this is what you’re gonna do:
Stand there like a man until Eacker is in front of you
When the time comes, fire your weapon in the air
This will put an end to the whole affair
But what if he decides to shoot? Then I’m a goner
No. He’ll follow suit if he’s truly a man of honor
To take someone’s life, that is something you can’t shake
Philip, your mother can’t take another heartbreak
It’s a small moment, but Philip is clearly a kid who has been raised to expect greatness, someone meant to ‘blow us all away’. He idolizes his father, despite Alexander’s distance, and wants nothing more than to make him proud.
Instead, he gets shot to death in a duel. The show’s repeated counting motif – from “The Ten Duel Commandments,” to “Take A Break” – comes to a brutal head here as Philip is shot before they even reach ten. In “Stay Alive (Reprise),” Eliza and Alexander are in the same room for perhaps the first time since she threw him out of the house, but neither has time for the other as they are forced to watch their oldest son die. Tragedy so often tears families apart. Can this bring them back together?
Act 4 is the story’s most nakedly emotional, a group of songs that finds the characters acting decisively in the worst ways possible and tearing everything apart. If you’re going to start sobbing, this isn’t a bad place to do it, particularly during “Stay Alive (Reprise).” Personally, Alexander and Eliza’s shared, comforting, “I know I know, I know I know,” gets me every time.
This isn’t uncommon for a fourth act. In the article I’m pulling this structure from, the fourth act is known as ‘the spiral’. It’s the one where the characters make the big, stupid, life-altering decisions that amp the drama up to a thousand and set up the real climax and denouement. Here, we have Alexander sacrificing his personal life in a desperate bid to save his professional one, as Philip dies defending his reputation and Eliza throws him to the curb. Everything is falling apart.
Is there any hope for the Hamiltons?