Radicalism in the 18th Century

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In what ways does eighteenth-century writing engage with political radicalism? The aim of this essay is to demonstrate how eighteenth-century texts are engaged with political radicalism of that era. For this purpose, I will focus on two writers who have the same background but different styles: Swift (political pamphleteer, poet and novelist) and John Gay (English poet and dramatist). First, I would like to introduce Gulliver’s Travels written by Jonathan Swift.

Moreover, I would like to provide and analyse some passages from the first part of Gulliver’s Travel: ‘A Voyage to Lilliput’ in order to reflect political radicalism through satire, descriptions of characters, humour and mockeries. Secondly, I would like to introduce and expose John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera on the whole in order to demonstrate that political radicalism differs from Gulliver`s Travel satirizing Robert Walpole’s figure.

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However, before making reference to the previous two points I will explain briefly the meaning of ‘political radicalism’ and comment on the background of the eighteenth-century period in England in order to have a good understanding of the writings of these two authors. To begin with, political radicalism refers when someone promotes a radical thought and wants to establish a profound change in politics structures that are in force. In England, The Glorious Revolution resulted from the fall of catholic James II who was replaced by his protestant daughter Mary and her husband William III.

George I ascended the throne after Mary and William’s death. Moreover, there were two different and opposite political parties in the parliament of England: Whig (liberal party) and Tory (conservative party). Another point related to England is that there was a contrast between poverty and wealth in London, and therefore it became a disreputable city. At this time, political parties as well as kings were criticized through literature since direct criticism of kings and governors was forbidden by law. A case in point would be Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels which is one of his successful classic novels.

Although it is considered a children’s book, it presents a fierce satire of English society and human condition concealed in a book of travels. The book is divided into four voyages each describing a corrupt part of England such as the Royal Society of England, the corruption of humans and ministers, the English’s religious beliefs, etc. From my point of view, the second and four voyages are illustrations of an ideal state (although there are also some attacks against bad government) and in the third voyage Swift blames the vices and follies of philosophers and scientists.

For this reason, I will only focus on the first part of Gulliver’s Travels: ‘A Voyage to Lilliput’ since the idea of political radicalism is shown in a better way. Swift uses satirical elements such as irony, sarcasm and humour as well as descriptive elements through unknown characters (Gulliver, Lilliputians and the emperor) and imaginary places (Lilliput, Blefuscu) in order to reflect political radicalism through writing. From the beginning of the novel, Swift speaks of his antipathy towards England.

Lilliput is the representation of England and its inhabitants known as Lilliputians are as corrupt as tiny. Swift provides us an accurate description of the emperor of Lilliput to illustrate his political idea of absolute monarchy: . . . [The emperor] is taller by almost the breadth of my nail, than any of his court; which alone is enough to strike an awe into the beholders. His features are strong and masculine, with an Austrian lip, and arched nose, his complexion olive, his countenance erect, his body and limbs well proportioned, al his motions graceful, and his deportment majestic. . . At first sight, this passage seems to be a simple description of one character taken from a novel, using several adjectives. Nevertheless, Swift describes the emperor with one purpose: to show us that the he is a despotic ruler. A harsh criticism against monarchy and especially against absolutism and totalitarianism lies behind his image since the emperor symbolizes the lively image of authoritarianism. Thus, George I is criticized by Swift through Lilliput’s emperor since for Swift and for his contemporaries George I was incapable of governing properly.

Thereafter, Lemuel Gulliver reinforces his own arguments: In like manner, the disbelief of a divine providence renders a man uncapable of holding any publick station: for, since kings avow themselves to be the deputies of Providence, the Lilliputians think nothing can be more absurd, than for a prince to employ such men as disown the authority under which he actet. . . This explanation about kings’ way of thinking conceals another criticism against monarchy. According to Swift, kings insist that they are kings by divine grace in order to get power and to be closest to the court.

For this reason, they use this type of fallacies and lies as they are willing to persuade people to achieve their goals. Moreover, Swift criticizes political corruption of his own country mocking at the ways governors are elected in Lilliput. There are some senseless competitions for those people who are willing to be candidates for the government. They are trained since they are children and when a post of politician is vacant for some time, they have to entertain the king by jumping, juggling and dancing: This diversion is only practiced by those persons, who are candidates for great employments, and high favour, at court.

They are trained in this art from their youth, and are not always of noble birth, or liberal education. When a great office is vacant, either by death or disgrace, (which often happens) five or six of those candidates petition the emperor to entertain his Majesty and the court with a dance on the rope; and whoever jumps the highest without falling, succeeds in the office. . . Therefore, these politicians are strongly satirized by the author since Lilliputians choose unqualified candidates for the political system.

Another display of political radicalism in Gulliver’s Travels is Swift’s mockeries at the ideological division between High and Low Heels. In Lilliput, political parties are divided between those men who wear high and low heeled shoes. Therefore, Swift jabs at the political parties of the English government criticizing both conservative (Tory or high heels) and liberal party (Whig or low heels): . . . you are to understand, that for above seventy moon past, there have been two struggling parties in this empire, under the names of Tramecksan, and Slamecksan, from the high and low heels on their shoes, by which they distinguish themselves.

It is alledged indeed, that the high heels are most agreeable to our ancient constitution: but however this be, his Majesty hath determined to make use of only low heels in the administration of the Government . . . The animosities between these two parties run so high, that they will neither eat nor drink, nor talk with each other. . . At the same time, Swift parodies the conflict between liberals and conservative parties using expressions such as ‘. . .primitive way of breaking eggs before we eat them, was upon the larger end’ (Blefuscu) and ‘. . . submit to break their eggs at the smaller end’ (Lilliput).

From my point of view, Swift was at first in favour of liberals (Lilliput) but then he changes side as he considers them betrayers. Unlike Gulliver’s Travels, The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay, exposes political radicalism in a different way. Both Gulliver’s Travels and Beggar’s Opera are satires based on the corruption of English government. However, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera satirizes Robert Walpole as well as other riches. Indeed, the author of the play satirizes the general high classes’ interests in Italian opera which became popular in London.

While poverty, alcoholism and crime were increasing, Italian opera was becoming a prestigious opera based on mythological and gallant themes. Therefore, John Gay wrote this play as if it was an anti-opera replacing palaces with taverns, heroes with thieves and highbrow songs with oral traditional English and Irish songs. Hence he satirizes politics as well as poverty and injustices in a wide scale, making comparisons between thieves and prostitutes with bourgeois and aristocrats for instance. John Gay uses themes such as corruption, violence, prostitution, poverty and begging themes in order to criticize the Government of England.

John Gay’s criticism is mainly aimed at Robert Walpole, a Prime Minister of Whig party who exploited low social classes. As Edgar V. Roberts explains in the introduction of his book Regents Restoration Drama Series: . . . in Gay’s eyes Walpole had provided justification for the satiric portrayal by his machinations to acquire and retain power, his profiteering from South-Sea stock, his use of patronage and bribery, and his elimination of potential political rivals. . . Therefore, Gay satirizes Walpole by using low characters such as thieves, beggars and prostitutes.

Among these characters, Peachum, Bob Booty and Macheath represent Walpole in The Beggar’s Opera. Peachum, a thief, symbolises Walpole representing his aptitude as capitalist and minister: `But money, wife, is the true fuller’s earth of reputation. . . ’ which means that money can buy good reputation. Like many characters from the eighteenth-century comedy, Peachum acts as parasite since Walpole took advantage of people as it is shown at the very beginning of act one: ‘A lawyer is an honest employment; so is mine. Like me too he acts in a double capacity, both against rogues and for ‘em; for ‘tis but fitting that we hould protect and encourage cheats, since we life by them’. Themes such as love and sex, which are principally a business, are strongly satirized in this play when Peachum brings to light Walpole’s attitude towards women; he tells his wife that Bob Boody, another representation of Walpole, does not inspire him confidence as ‘he spends his life among women’. At the same time, Macheath’s indecision to decide if choose Polly or Lucy is perhaps another allusion to the relationship that Walpole had with his wife and his lover known as Maria Skerrett.

This allusion is reflected in ‘How happy could I be with either, were t’other dear charmer away. But while you thus tease me together, to neither a word will I say, but tol de rol. . . ’ Moreover, the satire of the play has a double allegory: Peachum not only plays the role of Robert Walpole but also of Jonathan Wild. Therefore, Jonathan Wild represents Robert Walpole in order to demonstrate us that Walpole’s political party had tolerated Wild’s robberies. The moral standards of John Gay’s characters illustrate perfectly the corruption of English government.

Finally, John Gay’s main purpose is to transmit us a double message with his play: firstly, men are not cruel since they are victims of vicious social forces. Thus, they have only understood that they have to be evils. Secondly, as the beggar says at the end of the play: ‘Twould have shown that the lower sort of people have their vices in a degree as well as the rich, and that they are punished for them’, that is, lower social classes are punished for their vices.

Therefore, as the Penguin Classics edition presents in the introduction of the book: ‘justice is a commodity and moral values are function of wealth and power’. Moreover, John Gay adds through Macbeth’s character that misery can disappear throughout time demonstrating that happiness is possible ‘But think of this maxim, and put off your sorrow: the wretch of today may be happy tomorrow’ in order to satisfy the English society of the eighteenth century period.

To conclude, Gulliver’s Travels and The Beggar’s Opera works were written as a response to the eighteenth-century politics and bad government. Both Jonathan Swift and John Gay show us their indignation of the situation that was taking place in English society, mainly in London through the characters of their works using satirical elements. However, their political climate is shown differently. While Jonathan Swift uses the literary genre of travelogue to criticize the corruption of English government, John Gay takes advantage of the songs of his anti-opera in order to judge English high classes. For these reasons we can finally conclude that these two works are clearly examples of Jonathan Swift and John Gay’s political radicalism of the eighteenth century.


E. Case, Arthur. Four Essays on Gulliver’s Travels. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945. Gay, John. The Beggar’s Opera. England: Penguin Books Ltd, 1986 Higgins, Ian. Jonathan Swift (writers and their work). United Kingdom: Athenaeum Press Ltd, 2004. Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. London: Aldine Press, 1970. V. Roberts, Edgar. The Beggar’s Opera (Regents Restoration Drama Series). United Kingdom: University of Nebraska Press, 1969.

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