With most of his works created during the Augustan era, they were more focused on public satire, all while utilizing the criminal population during that time as inspiration for some of his characters. Written in 1728, The Beggar’s Opera was one of his most famous pieces. Gay used comedy in this opera to convey the situations most business-oriented, money-savvy people dealt with at the time. Through this play, one can infer that the elite had no barriers when it came to the need for success.
To the point of desperation, the criminals were determined to be wealthy. Through several of these affluent characters’ lyrics and dialogue, Gay alleviated the criminal element of their work through humor.
Gay can easily be compared to another famous writer of the early 1700s, Daniel Defoe. Defoe wrote Moll Flanders in 1722, a novel surrounded by the exciting yet immoral acts of the protagonist, Moll. Written in essentially the same time period, Defoe also focused this story on criminality in England, similar to John Gay.
This is apparent in Defoe’s preface: “All the exploits of this lady of fame, in her depredations upon mankind, stand as so many warnings to honest people to beware of them, intimating to them by what methods innocent people are drawn in, plunder’d and robb’d, and by consequence how to avoid them” (preface, page 4).
Defoe is explaining the wrong actions of this semi-heroine as a caution to the readers, as moral people, to guide them in the right direction.
He describes Moll Flanders’ malicious deeds in a way to teach the audience what good behavior should be, all while delivering the message comically. This novel almost runs parallel to The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay in 1728, with the character of Macheath being comparable to Moll Flanders.
Of the highwaymen in the opera, Macheath is the most prominent employee of Peachum. He is the leader of the group, as well as a womanizer. Most of the women adore him, and he has no problem with this, despite being a newlywed to Polly Peachum, daughter of Peachum. As Polly doubts Macheath’s intentions, he responds: “Suspect my honor, my courage, suspect anything but my love. May my pistols misfire and my mare slip her shoulder while I am pursued if I ever forsake thee!” (Act 1, Scene 13). She confirms his defense as she says: “Nay my dear, I have no reason to doubt you, for I find in the romance you lent me, none of the great heroes were ever false in love” (Act 1, Scene 13).
Not only is this amusing, but also ironic, considering Macheath’s profession. He steals from the rich and resells these goods in order to make a profit, making him the epitome of a shameless man. Humorously enough, he speaks with utmost certainty that his wife should not doubt him, as though he has the morale of a saint. Polly willingly accepts his confident response, generating comedy. Macheath is just one of several crooked characters in the opera that thrives off of gaining favorable outcomes through selfish endeavors.
The opera starts out with one key character, Peachum, who oversees the highwaymen in the play. The highwaymen are highly dependent on Peachum, seeing as he decides their faith by reporting the highwaymen to the authorities in exchange for a personal reward. Peachum takes a comic approach when discussing his morally wrong profession as he says, “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 should protect and encourage cheats, since we live by ’em” (Act I, scene 1).
This generates humor as he defends criminality by defending his profession, which, in other words, is simply emulating other people to justify his dirty work. Peachum, comparing his line of duty to that of a lawyer’s, by saying they both involve a double standard, is essentially admitting that society has limited boundaries when it comes to defining morality. This is humorous as he is almost allowing his selfishness to take over his ethical standards. Later on in the play, as he converses with his partner, Lockit, Peachum says, “In one respect, indeed, our employment may be reckoned dishonest, because, like great statesmen, we encourage those who betray their friend ….. we are both in the wrong. We shall be both losers in the dispute, for you know we have it in our power to hang each other. (…) You should not be so passionate (…) ’tis our mutual interest; ’tis for the interest of the world we should agree” (Act 2, Scene 10).
Peachum talks to Lockit with great conviction, and through this conversation, the length the socially elite were willing to go to feed to their hypocrisy is evident. Peachum creates a comedic effect for the audience as he explicitly acknowledges the dishonesty in his work. He even goes to the point of fortifying his profession, his defense being that everyone is one and the same. Peachum is a conniving character in the opera, but Lockit is equally as sly with his level of deceit.
Lockit is another crucial player in the game of criminal work in the opera. As the prison warden, he is Peachum’s business partner, but plays a lesser role in the cartel. However, Lockit is equally as deceptive and crooked as Peachum. He is ever greedy and cares only about his financial benefit. In response to Peachum noting that their deeds may be seen as unjust and irresponsible, Lockit joyfully sings, “When you censure the age, Be cautious and sage, Lest the courtiers offended should be, If you mention vice or bribe, ‘Tis so pat to all the tribe, Each cries – That was levell’d at me” (Act 2, Scene 10). He lyrically expresses his viewpoint that everyone has dishonesty in his or her heart. He does not support that it should be denied, but rather acknowledged. His resentment of Peachum’s argument generates humor in that he disagrees with a responsible and fair outlook on the wrongdoings of their line of criminal work.
In a conversation with Peachum, Lockit says: “Brother Peachum – I can forgive as well as resent. Give me your hand. Suspicion does not become a friend” (Act 2, Scene 10). Lockit uses forgiveness and resentment interchangeably so easily, despite completely opposing each other, generating a comedic effect. Gay’s negative view of human morality is seen in this quote alone, and he is able to deliver this view in an ironic way. As if Macheath and Peachum did not shed enough corruption onto the play, Lockit flourishes through every scene with his indecent actions. Through song and dialogue, Gay, with a touch of humor, mocks Macheath, Peachum, Lockit, and the rest of the criminals in the opera, but this suggests an implicit comparison to all humans.
All in all, everyone is hypocritical and mainly self-interested when it comes to his or her social and business motivations. Gay adds a spin to the original ending of the play, by relentlessly freeing Macheath from his hanging. As an audience, we are almost able to relate to Macheath and the highwaymen, in regard to our lack of moral responsibility and ability to empathize with others. These are basic characteristics of human beings, regardless of social standing or wealth, and Gay expresses this factor throughout his opera. Most of the characters are corrupt and almost narcissistic, and Gay takes a humorous approach to express these aspects of basic human nature. Through our indirect connection with Macheath, we are given “what we want” as the audience: a happy ending.
Gay creatively finds a way to parody the unfavorable view that highwaymen are given by having the opera end joyously in song and dance. Throughout the play, we grow fond of Macheath and the other criminals’ tendencies, as their actions are displayed in a humorous and ironic fashion. It would have been too tragic for the audience to enjoy the opera had Macheath not been pardoned. In fact, the ending was inviting enough to the audience for them to join the characters in festive and merry dance, celebrating the freedom of the fraudulent Macheath. The comic relief and irony in the new ending was necessary to almost not offend us, as the audience, since we are merely a shadow of Macheath, and the rest of the characters. These characters hold mirror to the largely prevailing social norms of the early 18th century and cultural setting of the play.
The audience of this time period is virtually enticed to forgive them and even overlook their actions by agreeing to spare the life of a criminal. It is the writer’s unique writing skill that turns the audience’s disdain into love for the low lives of the characters in the opera. Content, context, and presentation are all key components of a successful play and that is exactly what Gay was able to carry out flawlessly: humor and irony involved in a narrative style for the unsuspecting audience. Overall, the inviting and happy ending of the opera perfectly encapsulates what humor was present throughout the play as it expressed the dismissiveness of criminality as a whole.