English 205:
Lecture 13

John Gay: The Beggar's Opera

John Gay was born in 1685 in Barnstaple. He went to London to serve as an apprentice to a mercer (a silk merchant), but he began to associate with statesmen, courtiers, and wits. Along with Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, his closest friends, he helped found the Scriblerus Club, a group of writers who were famous for their political satires. Swift is said to have given him the idea for The Beggar's Opera when he suggested Gay write a "Newgate pastoral."

Gay supported himself for a while in London as the secretary to Lord Clarendon, a Tory envoy to Hanover. But with the death of Queen Anne and the Tories' fall from grace in 1714, his own position ended. Under King George I, Robert Walpole became Prime Minister. Walpole despised all writing that was not political journalism--and he despised all of those who did not favor him. The atmosphere became very unfriendly: Swift fled to Dublin, Pope to Twickenham. Gay was denied all patronage until 1727, when he was insulted by being offered a position as Gentleman Usher to 2-year-old Princess Louisa; he declined. In later years, the Duke and Duchess of Queesnbury were his patrons. In the interim, he worked as a journalist, published poetry, and lived off gifts from friends.

The Beggar's Opera was begun in 1727. There are obvious correlations between Peachum and Jonathan Wild, a notorious leader of London criminals, who had recently been hanged. But there are also more subtle likenesses between Peachum and Walpole: their success at gaining and retaining command, their brazenness, their duplicity, their materialism, and their manipulation and corruption of the public. Through Peachum, Gay excoriates Walpole as someone who cares for nothing but the material, the commercial, and the expedient; he reminds his audience that Peachums flourish in the atmosphere set in London by their leaders.

The comparison between Peachum and Walpole was not lost on the play's audiences, and just in case it was, Swift wrote of Gay's "comparing those common robbers to robbers of the public; and their several stratagems of betraying, condemning and hanging each other to the several arts of politicians in times of corruption" (The Intelligencer, May 25, 1729).

The other rogues in the play--Macheath and Lockit, particularly--are meant to remind the public of the rogue's gallery with which Walpole had surrounded himself.

Walpole attended a performance of the play, and is said to have saved face by rising and calling for an encore of the most damaging song, "When you censure the age."

The Beggar's Opera is also a burlesque of Italian opera, which had become fashionable in England. Gay saw the upper classes' affectation of love for the opera, which they did not understand, as another folly of aristocratic pretension and corruption. In the rivalry between Polly and Lucy, Gay is mocking the rivalry between Italian singers. The beggars' poor technique satirizes the corrupting influence of the liberettists, and the corruption of the age itself.

Gay is also parodying many standard literary conventions. The Lucy-Polly episodes, for example, parody cliched dramatic revenge scenes. There is also a parody of Aristotelian tragedy, where a great man's fall derives from a tragic flaw. Macheath's "tragic flaw" is a weakness for women; and Macheath's weakness for women implies also his miscalculation in believing that the society in which he lives values anything except money. Gay uses Macheath to make the point that, as in The Beggar's Opera, England is a society in which everything and everyone is up for sale.

Many readers and audiences are disconcerted by the fact that there seems to be no one to like in this play. This is a deliberate choice on Gay's part. The play is not about virtue opposing corruption, but about corruption's destruction of virtue. Macheath is a seducer, and his borrowing of quotes from Shakespeare only reminds the audience of a vanished nobility.

If you'd like more information on any of the topics in this lecture, see the Links page. Enjoy!

Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages through the 18th Century, eds. Frank Kermode, John Hollander, et al.
2. "England: A Narrative History," by Peter Williams, on the Go Brittania website
3. The Beggar's Opera in Its Own Time, Yvonne Noble.
4. The Augustans, by Maynard Mack
5. To the Palace of Wisdom, by Martin Price
6. English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century, by Roger Fiske