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Sunday, December 31, 2006


John Gay, the author of one of the most famous plays of the 18th Century, is also one of the most overlooked figures in the canon of English literature as well. In this essay, which I wrote for a class in the summer of 2006, I attempt to do justice to The Beggar's Opera and the man John Gay.



ENG 345
AUGUST 7, 2006

Morality is nowhere to be found in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. A passage that appropriately sums up the prevailing theme of the play is spoken by Lockit when he says, “lions, wolves, and vultures don’t live together in herds, droves or flocks. Of all animals of prey, man is the only sociable one. Every one of us preys upon his neighbor, and yet we herd together” (98-99). Each character is out for his or her own self in this play. Dishonesty and ignobility have no place in the lexicon of the characters of Gay’s mock-opera. Any means that can be employed to earn of quick shilling or save a character’s own neck from the noose or worse is fair game. This attitude is a reflection of the corrupt times John Gay was living in.

In their introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Beggar’s Opera, Bryan Loughrey and T.O. Treadwell describe eighteenth-century London as corrupt on all levels. Political offices had to be bought and the slums in the St. Giles quarter were “dangerous as well as squalid“ (15). Thief-catcher rings operated much like the mafia with the famous Jonathan Wild controlling most of them much like an eighteenth-century Al Capone. Graft, prostitution, larceny and alcoholism were accepted norms of eighteenth-century London society and no play paints a better picture of this than John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Loughrey and Treadwell say in their introduction that, “the criminal world [in The Beggar’s Opera] is no worse than the world of respectable society, but it is no better either. . .” (29). The Underworld characters often compare themselves to the aristocracy to vindicate themselves, or at least to justify their actions, but they prove to be just as untrustworthy and vice-ridden as the upper-class citizens they condemn. In this essay I will argue that John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera offers a world that is rampant with dishonesty and immorality, where back-stabbing is the norm and greed and self-preservation drives the characters and pits them against each other, and that ultimately these characteristics condemn the characters of the play and the society which they are a reflection of. No one character is truly virtuous and honorable with exception to Polly and possibly some of the members of Macheath‘s gang such as Matt of the Mint. While some of the other characters in the play display virtuous qualities from time to time, they later contradict these qualities by committing greedy or immoral acts.

One of the best and first instances of the play’s immorality comes when Polly tells her mother and father in Act I that she is in love with Macheath and that she is going to marry him. Peachum and his wife’s response to this news is to offer a solution to the timeless perception that marriage is a “trap” for both partners. Peachum says to Polly, “Secure what he hath got, have him peached the next Sessions, and then at once you are made a rich widow” (61). Polly, who is incredulous at this suggestion, says, “the blood runs cold at the very thought of it” (61). While intended to be comedic, this scene also speaks of a darker theme that dominates The Beggar’s Opera. By Peachum instructing Polly to have Macheath hanged so she can be rich and single again, Gay is showing peoples’ motives at their most base and greedy, which he does frequently throughout the play. Furthermore, he is belittling the highly valued institution of marriage by showing it as merely a means to gaining an easy fortune. This faithless view in the institution of marriage is further enhanced by the plethora of prostitutes that populate The Beggar’s Opera and by the pejorative vocabulary used throughout the play to describe women in general, such as “hussies,” “sluts” and “baggage.”

When Pechum and Mrs. Peachum realize that Macheath possess enough evidence to have them hanged instead, their motives for having him peached quickly change from wanting to make Polly a rich widow to a necessity to save their own lives. This betrays their immoral nature because they would not think twice about hanging someone who they believe not only loves and is going to marry their daughter, but also because they would have Macheath executed who Mrs. Peachum said a few scenes earlier that, “. . . there is not a finer gentleman upon the road. . . “ (48). They are purely motivated by greed and a necessity to save and protect themselves and care nothing about Macheath as a person or for what he contributes to the gang. Also, because they automatically assume that Macheath has the same motives as they do--that he will have them hanged once he marries Polly so he can inherit their fortune--this further proves that their own greedy and immoral views extend to how they perceive all of humankind. Already one gets a sense of the kind of world Gay is portraying--a world without morals or any concept of right and wrong.

If it can obviously be assumed that Peachum and his wife are not the most savory of characters, the reader quickly learns that Macheath is not much better. While at the end of Act I he professes what appears to be his endless and true love for Polly, one can see that his lines are littered with allusions comparing women to money, especially coins. When he is parting from Polly, he sings in air 18, “The miser thus a shilling sees/ Which he’s obliged to pay/ With sighs resigns it by degrees/ And fears ‘tis gone for aye” (67). All the while Polly is singing a tune in which she imagines Macheath is thinking of their parting the way, “The boy, thus, when his sparrow’s flown/ . . . . Whines, wimpers, sobs and cries” (67). Macheath is giving up Polly like a miser gives up a shilling, while she thinks he is imagining giving her up the way a boy would give up a pet bird.

This is not the only passage in the play which likens women to material and monetary possessions. In air 2 Filch sings that, “. . . suits of love, like law, are won by pay/ And beauty must be fee’d into our arms” (44). This alludes to prostitution, but it can also be viewed as expressing the timeless complaint that women are greedy in marriage and spend all of their husbands’ hard earned pay. This can also be taken to mean that marriage, in a way, is a form of prostitution were the man is essentially buying the woman. Consistent with this theme, Mrs. Peachum sings in air 5 that, “A maid is like the golden ore/ Which hath guineas intrinsic in’t,“ but, “A wife’s like a guinea in gold/ Stamped with the name of her spouse” (51). In his article “Similitude as Satire in The Beggar’s Opera” William Bowman Piper interprets these lines to mean that a young unmarried girl, “is like a lump of ore that will make an uncertain number of guineas. . . . when it is minted,“ but, “any wife in general, is like a single golden guinea; every wife, according to the figure, being. . . . precisely interchangeable on the market with every other” (347). This is a very bleak view of the institution of marriage if one takes it seriously, and Gay is making a statement that women are all coins stamped with the image of their husbands and thus are property and serve a monetary and economic function. The institution of marriage must have been marred in the eighteenth-century by the very popular trade of prostitution. Loughrey and Treadwell state that in the St. Giles quarter, “more than one house in every four was a gin shop,” but, “most of the gin shops were also brothels of the cheapest kind and places where stolen goods were received” (14). Since The Beggar’s Opera is described by the authors of the introduction as a “great success” (7) and as “smashing all previous [theater] records,” (7) it is not hard to imagine how popular vices like prostitution, theft and alcoholism--all subjects which The Beggar’s Opera deals with--captured and ran away with the mainstream consciousness of eighteenth-century Londoners.

Just as Macheath is driven by greed in his occupation as a highwayman, he is also driven by lust in his affairs with women. In a soliloquy before he entertains a group of prostitutes, he says, “a man who loves money, might as well be contented with one guinea, as I with one woman,” (72) and he says, “there is nothing unbends the mind like [women]” (72). If in Act I Macheath is a sort of Romeo to Polly who is his Juliet, this view of him is quickly dispatched when he is depicted entertaining the prostitutes in Act II. When he gets to Newgate prison and Lucy is introduced into the plot, five months pregnant by Macheath, his fatal flaw is now manifest to the reader. Macheath cannot keep his hands off females. This works well with the satiric element of the mock-operatic play, but it also carries a more sinister tone to it as well. Both Polly and Lucy are desperately and truly in love with Macheath and they have been seduced by his sweet words and his many promises so that they both consider him their husband. While some women may not mind having light relations with Macheath, Polly and Lucy are deeply wounded by his betrayal and display many of the characteristics of virtuous maidens. Thus Macheath is as much of a back-stabber out for his own gain and pleasure as much as any other character in The Beggar‘s Opera.

While Polly and Lucy may be the most virtuous of all the characters in the play, they have their shortcomings as well. They are both the daughters of shady fathers for one thing. While Lockit’s profession as a jailor may be more legit than Peachum’s as a thief catcher, there is more than one scene when they secretly discuss “going halves” on Macheath. Lucy’s most virtuous act is to help Macheath escape from prison, however, her character ultimately suffers when she attempts to poison Polly with rats-bane. Her wickedness manifests itself when she says, “I never could be hanged for anything that would give me greater comfort, than the poisoning that slut” (108). Polly and Lucy are both culpable for loving so steadfastly a roguish man like Macheath, who neither deserves their loyalty or offers any promise of ever remaining faithful in the future. Something can be said of them by this fact alone, much like what can be said of the women today who fall for the bad-boy or tough-guy type of men. However, if one was to weigh the two characters on a scale, Polly would prove the more virtuous of the two women, which is most likely why Gay has Macheath make her his wife in the end, albeit not without singing the chauvinistic 69th air that concludes with the line, “The wretch of today, may be happy tomorrow” (122).

The characters in The Beggar’s Opera frequently try to justify their evil actions by comparing themselves to respectable society. Peachum, like many of the characters, constantly has it in for lawyers and in the opening scene says, “a lawyer is an honest employment, so is mine. Like me too he acts in a double capacity, both against rogues and for ‘em. . .” (43). This does not amount to much of a vindication of his deeds but rather makes him look more foolish than anything else. By using the excuse that “if the rich guys can do it, well, so can I” he is only absolved so much because he is not in a position where morality is expected of him. Third graders do the same thing. If a basketball star they admire acts immoral than they think they have license to emulate that person, only they are not culpable for their actions because they are young and inexperienced. The basketball star ultimately takes the blame, because he is the one who is supposed to be setting a good example and he is setting a bad one. Peachum is indirectly asserting in these lines, whether he knows it or not, that modes of conduct are set by respectable society and thus trickle down to everybody else. If the citizens with the money and the government offices can act immoral, than immorality becomes the status quo. Peachum’s lines than, in which he tries to pump himself up and look like he is better than lawyers, ultimately make him look like a poor, uneducated peasant of the meanest sort.

Robinhood-like virtues can be found in the gang of thieves and alongside Polly this gang is the next closest thing to true virtue in The Beggar’s Opera. Matt of the Mint tries to justify stealing from the rich in the following passage when he says:

“A covetous fellow, like a jackdaw, steals what he was never made to enjoy, for the sake of hiding it. These are the robbers of mankind, for money was made for the freehearted and generous, and where is the injury of taking from another, what he hath not the heart to make use of? (69)

These lines seem to speak of a noble purpose behind the highwaymen’s actions, but one can hardly see the justice in stealing from the rich because they hide what they own. Did it never occur to Matt of the Mint that the rich hide their possessions because robbery was so rampant in eighteenth-century London? In their introduction, Loughrey and Treadwell claim that, “the slums of London were a jungle which the well-dressed and respectable explored at their peril,” (15) and that, “fear of the rope appears to have had little effect on the crime rate” (17). Certainly all of the thieving rings like the one Macheath and Matt of the Mint belong to were responsible for much, if not all of, the crime. Furthermore, for all of the gang’s professed loyalty to one another--for instance, Nimming Ned says, “who is there here that would not die for his friend?” (69)--the solidarity of Macheath’s gang ultimately proves less than perfect in the end. While caught after escaping from prison and facing execution, Macheath alludes to the fact that Jemmy Twitcher, a member of his gang, turned him in. “That Jemmy Twitcher should peach me, “he says to Matt of the Mint, “I own surprised me!” (118). The ultimate message from this is that all friendship and loyalty is false, and that only rogues and dissemblers exist.

This may sound harsh but it was the world John Gay was living in. Scholars have tried to argue that in The Beggar’s Opera Gay is exalting the Underworld and exposing the corruption of wealthy society. They base their arguments on the fact that the rogues, villains and harlots in the play don’t pretend to be anything else than what they are, and that the true villains, rogues and harlots are the upper-class individuals, who affect righteousness and decency and yet are as vile and obscene at the core as the members of the Underworld-classes. But this view ignores the fact that there is not a single character of the respectable-class of Londoners in Gay’s play. There is simply a class of villains being villains, and where is the vindication in that? While they may boast how they are better than the rich, they do it all behind the backs of respectable Londoners in their private dens and brothels. Just as Macheath is being led to the gallows, the Beggar, who is the fictional author of the play, says, “Through the whole piece you may observe such a similitude in high and low life, that it is difficult to determine whether (in the fashionable vices) the fine gentleman imitate the gentleman of the road, or the gentlemen of the road the fine gentlemen” (121). But how is one supposed to deduce this if the play only tells a one-sided story? Where are the fine-gentlemen with fashionable vices to compare to the gentlemen of the road in the play like Macheath and Matt of the Mint?

In conclusion, one thing can be said in favor of The Beggar’s Opera that echoes what scholars who argue that the play is a vindication of the Underworld say. In the end when the Beggar talks of “poetical justice” (120) and having all of the characters either “hanged or transported,” (121) his companion, the Player, interrupts and says they must change the ending to “comply with the taste of the town” (121). Hence Macheath is reprieved and reluctantly marries Polly. “The taste of the town” has as much to do with the audience expecting an opera to end happily as it does with them wanting to see true “poetical justice” done by having Macheath freed. Scholars argue that one of the chief injustices this play addresses is that the citizens of the Underworld are punished for their vices whereas the upper-class citizens are not. By reprieving Macheath at the end, scholars say that this is a bit of poetical justice that is sticking it to the man.

But if Macheath is not the villain who the town wants to see hanged, must we automatically assume that the aristocracy should be hanged? Perhaps the true villains the town wants to see hanged are Peachum and Lockit who are fictional representations of people like Jonathan Wild--those individuals who would rat out their own friends for 40 pounds and who would look like they were doing the world good by ridding it of one more purse snatcher. Loughrey and Treadwell say in their introduction that the public was dubious of Jonathan Wild, “and when, in 1724, he finally overreached himself and was hanged for the offense of receiving a reward for the return of goods which he knew to have been stolen, few tears were shed” (20). Are not the thief-catchers the ones who should hang if poetical justice is to reign victorious in the end?

But poetical justice lives in the epitaph of John Gay, which he composed for himself before he died. For a man who lived during England’s immoral and corrupt eighteenth-century, he is remembered for eternity with lighthearted words of mirth that read: “Life is a jest; and all things show it/ I thought so once; but now I know it.” Being able to laugh in the face of so much corruption is the biggest victory of all, and if the Underworld characters in The Beggar’s Opera were not vindicated, at least John Gay was.


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