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Discussing Satire In The Beggars Opera English Literature Essay

Within the Oxford English Dictionary, the term ‘satire’ is defined as ‘the use of ridicule, irony, or sarcasm, to show up apparent weaknesses of people and institutions’ [1] , therefore just by looking at the term through this simple definition, it is not problematic to see its relevance when considering John Gay’s 1728 sensation, The Beggar’s Opera. Satire was not a new form during this era, but The Beggar’s Opera represented something new for the theatre-going populace; instead of Antiquity, here was a hard and coarse work, which directly satirised not only society, but the political parties of the day as well. For example the character of Macheath is continuously likened to Whig politician and Prime-minister of the era, Robert Walpole. This is particularly conveyed within the comparison of the two following portraits:

Robert Walpole, also known as ‘Bob Booty’, governed in an age of tremendous corruption. Gay himself had been affected by the corruption of the Whig government during what has come to be known as ‘The South Sea Bubble’. According to John Brewer within The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century, the Whig politicians and financial speculators conned the public out of extensive sums of money through manipulating the stock market [3] . ‘The South Sea Bubble’ is referred to directly within Air XLIII, within the ‘The South Sea Ballad’. Within this ballad, Gay’s resentment to the Whigs and the corruption that affected him personally is extremely apparent ‘Of that Jilt, that inveigling Harlot! This, this my Resentment alarms.’ [4] Therefore, the fact that critics and audiences alike linked the character of Macheath to Whig politician Robert Walpole was not a mistake on their part, but rather Gay was actively seeking to satirise these politicians.

Gay’s direct satire of Walpole is especially seen when Peachum says ‘Robin of Bagshot, alias Gorgon, alias Bob Bluff, alias Carbuncle, alias Bob Booty’ [5] . Not only is Gay satirizing Walpole by attaching his name to a criminal, but Gay is also portraying to the audience that, in his own opinion, Walpole and other such politicians like him, can not be trusted. This is because just as the Bob Booty of the play has different names and facades, therefore being capable of changing both for when it suits him; Gay is revealing that the real-life Bob Booty is just as capable of changing his façade for his own financial gain and is just as mercenary in handling his public affairs.

Throughout the course of the play, there are many references to Walpole, the Whigs and their apparent want for financial gain. The characters of Peachum and Lockit personify this immensely; they are both characters whom continuously employ methods of financial gain, and are both extremely hypocritical in the way they do so. Peachum, who makes a living through catching criminals when he is in fact a criminal himself, is used metaphorically to depict the prosperous and seemingly respectable middle-classes. There are direct links between the character of Peachum and the well-known criminal Jonathan Wild. Wild was in a position of authority within the Eighteenth Century, as he appeared to be the nation’s leading policeman, but behind this cover, he was the brains behind a scheme which allowed him to be in this position of authority, whilst he ran one of the most successful criminal gangs of the era- he lead a double life of both criminality and respectability, just like Peachum. After his death, Wild became a symbol for corruption and hypocrisy; and by allowing one of the most prominent middle-class characters to so closely depict this celebrity criminal, Gay successfully underscores the hypocrisy of the middle to higher classes of the time.

Lockit is similar to the character of Peachum in that he disguises his criminality with a facade of courtesy and respectability; he holds a respectable career as the chief prison officer, but underneath this facade is as corrupt as Peachum. Like most characters within the play, it is evident that Lockit is a character who isn’t intrinsically evil or fraudulent, but rather his hidden dishonesty is a product of the environment in which he lives, the environment of Eighteenth century society. Lockit seems to hold the view that any selfless feeling towards others, be it loyalty or love, is just another commodity from which gain can be realised; that exploitation is so prevalent within society, that it would be foolish not to exploit a situation personally. This sentiment is illustrated within Act :

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. [6] 

This ironic observation from Lockit appropriately fits the altogether anti-social mood that seems to pervade Gay’s play, as our playwright likens man to predatory beasts and through doing so, highlights the paradoxes and hypocrisies of human nature as a whole. This is because on the one hand, according to Lockit, Man is similar to lions and vultures, because his behaviour is driven by the same killer instinct; but on the other hand, unlike beasts, Man is a social being- a complete paradox.

This paradox is seen again further within Air XLII, in Act III. Man is again shown to have the same killer instincts, but is also shown as a social being, ‘Like Pikes, lank with Hunger, who miss of their Ends, They bite their Companions, and prey on their Friends’ [7] . The purpose of presenting Man in this way, it seems, is to ridicule them, especially seen within the last quotation as the idea that is depicted is that ethically, Man is no better than pikes in a pond.

When looking at The Beggar’s Opera in this way then, it is not so straightforward to categorise it as a satire of either high-life or of low-life, but instead it can simply be seen as a satire that highlights the discrepancies of Mankind and the society he has created as a whole. Although Gay unquestionably ridicules the high social classes of the time in many instances throughout the play, for example the upper-class’ fascination with the Italian Opera is patently satirised throughout; Gay is consistent throughout in maintaining also his derision toward society overall.

The Beggar’s Opera seems to be an anti-feminist text, as the women within it are the catalyst for all the happenings in the play. Gay again highlights the hypocritical nature of a section of society, this is shown as when Mrs. Peachum displays her disdain for Polly’s choice of partner, Macheath, ‘I thought the Girl had been better bred’ [8] it is not because of the fact he is a criminal, but because that Polly wants to marry for love. I believe Mrs. Peachum’s reaction to be a satire of the higher class’ marriages. Within Gay’s era marriage was a contractual agreement, especially for the high social classes. Women of these social orders did not have the chance to pick their own husbands, it was their parents who had this task. Love was not supposed to come in to the equation until after the marriage had begun; instead the premise of choosing a husband was solely on respectability and the monetary value a husband could bring. Therefore, Gay underpins that his century’s drive for money, was apparent within every aspect of society.

Throughout the entirety of the play, the audience are aware that everything has been upturned; The Beggar’s Opera is a meeting of opposites. Not only are the conflicting natures of Mankind presented to the audience, but the audience are also shown a society in which behaviour and ethics have been rearranged. From this viewpoint, Gay’s created society can be seen in a carnivalesque way. Carnival is a mixture of high and low culture which subverts tradition. It is a mode of logic that, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, is characterised by the ‘turnabout of a continual to top to bottom, profanations, comic crowning and uncrownings’ [9] . According to Trisha Wheelock, carnivalesque literature demands the ‘co-mingling of all society’ [10] , it demolishes social hierarches and boundaries, allowing free interplay between socially stratified people. Wheelock goes on to state that, through breaking down these bounndaries and allowing the mingling of the ‘profane, the lofty with the low, the great with the insignificant, the wise with the stupid’ [11] , carnivalesque literature ridicules those in power.

Gay presents the topsy-turvy nature of the society within the text, through the comparison of characters that comprise of the criminal underworld and the low-life, like pickpockets, prostitutes, thieves and murderers-with their aristocratic ‘betters’. For example, Macheath is a criminal of low-class, but instead of being punished for his crimes, the character is pardoned. The rearrangement of morals and treatment is particularly in Scene Seventeen, Act III when the Beggar says:

Through the whole Piece you may observe such a Similitude of Manners in high and low Life, that it is difficult to determine whether (in the fashionable Vices) the fine Gentlemen imitate the Gentlemen of the Road, or the Gentlemen of the Road, the fine Gentlemen.----Had the Play remain'd, as I at first intended, it would have carried a most excellent Moral. 'Twould have shown that the lower sort of People have their Vices in a degree as well as the Rich: And that they are punish'd for them. [12] 

Therefore, through Macheath’s non-punishment for his crimes, Gay is highlighting the duplicity of the fact that people within high society are more likely to be pardoned of their crimes, because of their social standing. This is because, by allowing a lower-class character to be given the same treatment as a person of high social standing, Gay allows the audience to see these morals for what they really are.

The most obvious form of satire towards the upper-classes within the text, is the form of the text itself. The Beggar’s Opera is a ballad opera, it intertwines a high class form of the opera, with low-class characters and plots. Instead of the grand music and themes that were usually apparent within opera, Gay used well-known tunes of the time, and transformed them to fit his purpose. Our playwright used three acts to convey his text, which is representative of the operatic form of the time as opposed to the dramatic form of five acts. Gay’s adaptation of a popular form of the time serves the purpose of satirising the upper class’ fascination with the Italian Opera, which had become extremely popular within high standing circles in London. According to Allan Kozinn, The Beggar’s Opera is more of an ‘anti-opera than an opera, one of its attractions to the Eighteenth century public is the lampooning of the Italian opera style.’ [13] Gay’s metatheatrical satire of the Italian opera is evident throughout, but is highlighted especially during the closing scene, ‘The Catastrophe is manifestly wrong, for an Opera must end happily...All we must do, to comply with the Taste of the Town’ [14] 

The Beggar’s Opera is a text which satirises all sections of society; high life, middle life and low life. Throughout the text however, more emphasis is placed upon the ridicule of high life, which is not suprising considering the form of the play itself is a satire on Gay’s contemporary high society’s fascination with the Italian opera. This ridicule is further underscored through the comparison and imitation of the main characters to politicians of the time, namely Robert Walpole the Whig politician and Prime-minister. However, Gay does not only satirise the nature of the higher classes; he portrays the low life as equally hypocritical and immoral, but instead of completely ridiculing this section of society, Gay invokes the audience to contemplate the one difference between the high and low life’s behaviours; which is only the low life who are punished, the higher sects of society are pardoned because of their status and power. The Beggar’s Opera therefore is a comment on the injustices within Eighteenth century society, and a satire of all sections of it- the people, the industrious wants of those people and the loose morals and ethics that come hand in hand with them. Consequently, in my opinion Baddeeley’s assessment of The Beggar’s Opera is on all levels, a fair one, as Gay ridicules and mocks society as a whole, including both high and low life.


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