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Literature Review of “The Beggar’s Opera” by John Gay

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    The Beggar’s Opera Satire, an element used throughout the eighteenth century, was very popular in literary works. Generally, satire is used by the author to poke fun or criticize the faults of the government, a certain social class, or a certain person or group of people. In John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, the text is layered with many different themes, but one theme Gay appears to be frustrated with is the morality of high society and uses satire to reveal the dysfunction of marriage in high society.

    Gay uses his opera to show society, through a satirical lens, his frustrations by exploiting the shallow views and expectations of love and lust in his present day. In the beginning of the play, we learn Polly is married to Macheath, and appears to be very much in love. Immediately we see her parents are outraged when they learn that she has married. The Peachums outrage highlights the idea of marriage in the eighteenth century. Although Gay is making fun of the upper class and their views of marriage, in a satirical way he uses the Peachums in a hierarchical structure to represent the upper class of the underworld.

    Using the Peachums as the upper class in this context not only mocks the structure of classes, but it also points out the absurdity of the shallow views on marriage, regardless of class. The first reason the Peachums are upset is because Polly married Macheath without their knowing. Traditionally, the parents choose who their daughter will marry, and in the eighteenth century the decision of who she will marry is based on the socio-economical advantage it will give the family. Peachum shows his concern when he says, “But if I find out that you have play’d the fool and are married, you Jade you, I’ll cut your throat, hussy. (54) Gay makes it clear that it means a lot to him that he has some say in the man that she marries, and this was likely the way most fathers felt about their daughters. Another reason they appear to be upset by the marriage is because Macheath is a highway man and Peachum knows that “Gamesters and highwaymen are generally very good to their whores, but they are very devils to their wives. ”(49) The Peachums are watching out for their daughter just as any parent would, and since Macheath is a highway man, they do not want to see their daughter marry him.

    It appears as though Gay is pointing out the separation of classes in this situation. However, it is ironic that Peachum would judge Macheath based on his profession seeing how Peachum is not quite making an honest living himself. The thought that Peachum separates himself from Macheath, even though they are in a similar line of work, shows a separation of class, which was prevalent in the time period, even among thieves. In a time where class and wealth were very important, the Peachums are upset about the marriage is because Macheath does not give their family a socio-economical advantage.

    Peachum says, “If the wench does not know her own profit, sure she knows her own pleasure better than to make herself a property! ” (50) Gay shows that even though Polly is madly in love with Macheath, it is highly frowned upon by her parents because he does not offer a boost to her status in society. Gay is obviously mocking the shallow customs of the eighteenth century by pointing out that marriage is not about love, rather, it is an economical gain that can be achieved based on whom you marry.

    He also points out the fact that in this time period, marriage is not an enjoyable union because marriage makes a woman the man’s property. Gay shows the ridiculous views of the culture when Mrs. Peachum says “Our Polly is a sad slut! ” (54). The fact that Mrs. Peachum calls Polly a slut is ironic because she is married, and she is obviously not sleeping around. Gay also shows the upside down views of marriage when the Peachums are upset that Polly married, when she should be out sleeping around with higher class men. Gay shows this when Peachum tells Mrs.

    Peachum, “instruct her how to make the most of her beauty” (50) in hopes that she will use her beauty to find a man who will provide her with the largest fortune. Peachum also tells Polly, “You know, Polly, I am not against your toying and trifling with a customer in the way of business” (54) showing that it was acceptable to fool around with men, more so than to marry them because it makes more business sense. The same mentality Peachum has about gaining a fortune through marriage, is the reason he is concerned about his own daughter’s marriage.

    When Peachum says, “the Captain is a bold man, and will risk anything for money; to be sure he believes her a fortune” (55) and “Macheath may hang his father and mother-in-law, in hope to get into their daughter’s fortune. ” (57) Gay makes it clear that Peachum is less concerned with his daughters love for Macheath and more concerned with Macheath’s motive for trying to take his money through marrying Polly. Once again, Gay shows that marriage is simply about the fortune that is gained by marrying the right person.

    Regardless of what Polly thinks of Macheath, Peachum is unwilling to potentially sacrifice his worth for the man that Polly loves. After the Peachums find out about the marriage, they decide they can turn Macheath in to the authorities for a reward. Polly, who is madly in love with Macheath, goes out of her way to hide him from her parents and tells him about their plans. In Polly’s attempt to be loyal to her husband, Macheath ironically retreats to a tavern where he was likely going to sleep with other women. Gay points out the fact that in that time period women were an object to men.

    Not only does Macheath seem to be sleeping around when he is not with Polly, we learn that Lucy is pregnant with Macheath’s child, and towards the end of the play Gay brings four women holding children who claim to be with Macheath. Gay seems to portray marriage in the eighteenth century as a vehicle for an advantage. His views on marriage, as portrayed in the play, seem to emphasize status and fortune, and Macheath is married to Polly, but when he is sent to jail he tells Lucy that he will marry her if she lets him out of jail.

    Macheath knows that he is married to Polly, but in order for him to get out of jail he uses the promise of marriage to Lucy. Later, we learn that Macheath is not killed, he tells Polly, “For this time, I take Polly for mine” (122). Now that Macheath has been exposed, he probably realizes that Polly will take him back and he will have the largest advantage being married to her. Many similarities about eighteenth century marriage can be seen between The Beggar’s Opera, and Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode paintings.

    The whole idea of marriage in the high society in eighteenth century is forced, the families have more input in the marriage than the children who are getting married, the man in the marriage ends up being very promiscuous, and the families are only concerned with what advantages they bring each other. In Marriage a la Mode, Hogarth portrays two families who marry their children. One family brings a family name that represents an heir, and the other family brings money. The families obviously are more concerned about their well-being than their children (Hogarth).

    The Beggar’s Opera also points out the shallow views on marriage in the high society by putting an emphasis on marriage as a means for socio-economical advancement, disregarding feelings of love. There are likely a variety of messages that John Gay was trying to send to the audience in The Beggar’s Opera when it first came out in the eighteenth century. John Gay does an exceptional job of using satire to point out the dysfunction of marriage in the high society in the eighteenth century.

    By making the whole play about a lower class society that has similar views on marriage as the high society, he can only hope the upper class society realizes how ridiculous their views of marriage are. After reading The Beggar’s Opera, it is clear that Gay’s intentions to bring marriage into the play are to point out the flaws of the views on marriage in the high society. Works Cited Gay, John. The Beggar’s Opera. London: Penguin, 1986. Hogarth, William. Marriage A-la-Mode. 1743. The National Gallery, London. The National Gallery. Web. 4 Mar. 2012.

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