The Beggar's Opera Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Mr. Peachum, reckoning up his accounts, declares that his is an honest employment. Like a lawyer, he acts both for and against thieves. That he should protect them is only fitting, since they afford him a living. In a businesslike manner he decides who among some arrested rogues should escape punishment through bribes and who are so unproductive as to deserve deportation or the gallows. Though Mrs. Peachum finds a favorite of hers on his list, she makes no effort to influence her husband’s decision, for she knows that the weakness of her sex is to allow emotions to dominate practical considerations. She does say, however, that Captain Macheath, a highwayman, stands high in her regard, as well as in that—so she hints to Mr. Peachum—of their daughter Polly. The news upsets her spouse. If the girl marries, her husband might learn family secrets and gain power over them. Peachum orders his wife to warn the girl that marriage and a husband’s domination will mean her ruin. Consequently they are dismayed when Polly announces her marriage to Macheath. They predict grimly that she will not be able to keep Macheath in funds for gambling and philandering, that there will not even be enough money to cause quarrels, that she might as well have married a lord.

The Peachums’ greatest fear is that Macheath will have them hanged and so gain control of the fortune that is intended for Polly. They decide it will be best to dispose of him before he can do that, and they suggest to Polly that she inform on him. Widowhood, they tell her, is a very comfortable state. The girl stubbornly asserts that she loves her dashing highwayman, and she warns Macheath of her parents’ plan to have him arrested. They decide that he should go into hiding for a few weeks until, as Polly hopes, her parents relent.

Parting from his love, Macheath meets his gang at a tavern near Newgate to tell them that for the next week their rendezvous will have to be confined to their private hideout, so that Peachum will think the highwayman is deserting his companions. After his men leave to go about their business, some street women and female pickpockets enter. Two of them cover Macheath with his own pistols as Peachum, accompanied by constables, rushes in to arrest him. When Macheath is carried off to spend the night in Newgate, some of the women express indignation at not having been among those chosen to spring the trap and share in the reward Peachum offers for the highwayman’s capture.

Though Macheath has funds to bribe his jailer to confine him with only a light pair of fetters, it is another matter to deal with...

(The entire section is 1070 words.)