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First performed in 1728, The Beggar’s Opera is exceptional for its focus on the lower classes. The playwright, John Gay, used this focus for a particular social and political reason: to criticize the lower and upper classes in order to elevate the middle. Being disenchanted by the courts when the South Sea Bubble crashes in 1720 due to a combination of corruption and economics, Gay begins to distrust the actions and the effects of the court class. His way of criticizing them is to equalize the courts to the lower class, who he sees as being endowed with low morals. This opinion was most likely shaped by the real-life criminal celebrities at the time, Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard. In The Beggar’s Opera, Gay criticizes the lower and upper classes through the ironic equivalency between criminals and the court. By criticizing the the lowermost and uppermost classes in this way, Gay elevates the status of his audience, the middle class.
Gay introduces the lower class right away in this play as the main characters. A beggar starts the play, instead of a lord or lady, saying, “If poverty be a title to poetry, I am sure nobody can dispute mine” (Gay 41). We are then soon introduced to Peachum, who can be compared to aforementioned real-life criminal celebrity Jonathan Wild, and to his wife and daughter. To Peachum, the concept of honor is a very different one than what most of Gay’s middle class readers may hold. Peachum sees no sin in using the skills of the criminals who work for him and then throwing them under the bus when it benefits him, saying, “A lawyer is an honest employment, so is mine. Like me too he acts in double capacity, both against rogues and for ‘em; for tis but fitting that we should protect and encourage cheats, since we live by them” (43). This is not only commenting on Peachum’s loose morals towards honor, but is also introducing the idea that the lower class is imitating the upper class, which we will see much more of later on. Peachum also seems to hold the belief that the only honor found in someone is found in their usefulness. He says to his wife about his criminals, “I hate a lazy rouge, by whom one can get nothing ‘till he is hanged” (45). By this, he obviously does not value human life as anything but a means to an end. Peachum has similar attitudes towards his own daughter, Polly Peachum, saying, “A girl who cannot grant some things, and refuse what is most material, will make but a poor hand of her beauty, and soon be thrown upon the common” (54). Beauty, to him, is just a way to achieve something else. This statement also leads to an irony of what Peachum sees as “the common.” Instead of his own people being common, he means it to be those who act more upper class, which we will see more of later on. This is a way by which the lower class imitate the upper class, mocking each other by calling them “common.” Peachum is again seen as a man with quite incredibly loose morals when he says to his wife, “No gentleman is ever looked upon the worse for killing a man in his own defence; and if business cannot be carried on without it, what would you have a gentleman do?” This is meant to make somewhat of a caricature of the poorer class, saying their morals are so beneath that of the middle class that they are ridiculous. The way he represents these characters in essential to understanding what he wishes to say about them to his audience, the middle class. Readers are meant to laugh at the lower class in this play, not with them. There is obviously a sentiment already present in the generation that the lower class imitates the upper class and that both are loose in morals.
This representation is used by Gay to criticize not only the lower class, but the upper class as well. After all, there is an idea very present in this play that the lower class imitate the upper. We can see this when Mrs. Peachum says, “She loves to imitate the fine ladies” (50) and “now the wench hath played the fool and married, because forsooth she would do like the gentry” (55). This is distinctly drawing a line between what the lower class do and the influence of the upper class. There is an ironic equivalency presented by the lower class characters between criminals and the court. We can see this right away when an old woman near Peachum sings, “Through all employments of life / Each neighbor abuses his brother; / Whore and rogue they call husband and wife: / All professions be-rogue another. / The priest calls the lawyer a cheat, / The lawyer be-knaves the divine; / And the statesman, because he’s so great, / Thinks his trade as honest as mine.” This and Peachum’s next lines that I have written in the previous paragraph act as ways to equalize the uppermost and lowermost classes in regards to their morals. The upper class notions of what is civilized and honorable, like marriage and statesmen, are brought down as “whore and rogue.” Peachum says later on about Slippery Sam, “for the villain hath the impudence to have views of following his trade as a tailor, which he calls an honest employment” (46). This is both an example of the lower class believing in loose morals and the upper class being brought down a notch. As another example of equalization, Peachum says, “The man that proposes to get money by play should have the education of a fine gentleman, and be trained up to it from his youth” and his wife responds with, “What business hath he to keep company with lords and gentlemen? He should leave them to prey upon one another” (49). These lines of the lower class downright mocking the upper class are supposed to not only bring down the idea that the upper class is superior, but also allow for the middle class audience to laugh at both classes in this moment. In these lines, the middle class has the upper hand, as they can be seen as knowing both classes are morally corrupt compared to them. Gay molds this feeling into them by his use of the poor mocking the rich.
Gay uses the upper class model of the opera and mocks it by inserting ballads, a lower class form of music, into it. We see this when the beggar in the beginning of the play says, “I have introduced the similes that are in all your celebrated operas… I have observed a nice impartiality to our two ladies, that it is impossible for either to take offense. I hope I may be forgiven, that I have not made my opera throughout unnatural, like those in vogue” (41). This is continued through the play in regards to the form and the songs. This proves again Gay’s idea that the poor imitate the courts. This is just one of the ways he equalizes the upper class with the lower class through form. He also uses certain diction in his lower class character’s sayings to represent the imitation of the upper class by the poor. Peachum says to his wife, “Murder is as fashionable a crime as a man can be guilty of’ (48). Describing murder as fashionable here indicates that Gay is using upper class notions to describe morally corrupt and loose actions. Gay uses this to accentuate the notion of upper class superiority as being farse and that they actually affect the lower class to be morally corrupt.
There are multiple examples that Gay presents of the lower class characters equating the professional classes and the court class with stealing. It is sung in one of the ballads, “It ever was decreed, sir, / If lawyer’s hand is fee’d, sir, / He steals your whole estate” (60). This is very directly equating the professional class with Peachum’s own occupation, thievery. Peachum says to his defense, “In one respect indeed, our employment may be reckoned dishonest, because, like great statesmen, we encourage those who betray their friends” (85). The inclusion of “great statesmen” is a ridicule of Walpole, who Gay holds immense distrust and disdain for. This is equating the morals of the lower class directly with the upper class, and, by extension, saying that the poor imitate the court. This imitation of the court by the poor can be seen throughout the play and is designed to be a way the middle class readers can laugh at both of the classes and feel superior in their own standing. At the end of the play, we see the beggar saying, “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 remained, 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 punished for them” (121). This is very clearly granting the middle class the right, and almost the duty, to feel superior to the lower and middle classes. The lower class is “punished” for its imitation of the court’s corrupted morals, thus vindicating the middle class as morally superior.
This play is one that sets up the middle class to be the moral heroes, and does so without focusing on the middle class as much as the others. The lower class is the true subject in this piece, and is represented as having loose morals and sketchy occupations. This representation is used to criticize the upper class as being of equal caliber as the poor, if not worse because the poor imitate the courts. These ideas presented by gay were no doubt heavily influenced by the corruption taking hold in the courts at this time and the criminal celebrities of the lower class.
Gay, John. The Beggar’s Opera. London: Penguin, 1986. Print.
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