Study Guide

The Beggar's Opera

by John Gay

The Beggar's Opera Analysis

Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*London

*London. Scenes in London places such as Newgate Prison expose hypocrisy and corruption in the justice system and further heighten the invective against deceitful politicians, officers of the court, tastes of society, and the power of money. By exposing the treachery and fraud occurring in these various places, Gay hoped to correct or eliminate the political and social vices that marked London in the early eighteenth century.

Peachum’s house

Peachum’s house. London home of Mr. Peachum, a receiver of stolen goods and an informer. His home is his kingdom in miniature—the place where he conducts his business and gathers his followers. His dwelling acts as sort of a microcosm of what goes on in Walpole’s realm and the larger political arena. Peachum is the mock-aristocrat who gains and maintains power through bribery, theft, dishonesty, and treachery, all mechanisms Prime Minister Walpole allegedly used to retain his control over the country. Furthermore, Peachum’s house also serves as a mock-court, allowing Gay to poke fun at the ills of the court in early eighteenth century London. There seems to be little difference between the actions of the highwaymen and the courtiers; both groups are skilled thieves. Overall, Gay clearly exposes the targets of his political satire within Peachum’s domain.

*Newgate Prison

*Newgate Prison. Notorious London penal institution that was demolished in 1902. Much of the play’s business occurring in this prison exposes the corruption in the justice system. Lockit, the jailer, is easily bribed, thereby illustrating the notion that the right price can purchase “justice” and that laws and punishment are class-conscious. Money is important in Newgate, and its importance emphasizes the power of money as a major theme in the play. Furthermore, Macheath’s character is most fully exposed after he becomes a prisoner at Newgate, and it is here that many of the play’s conflicts are resolved. Macheath is transferred to the Condemn’d Hold to await execution, but since Gay’s play is an opera, it must have a happy conclusion. In a satirical turn on the fashionable Italian opera, Gay uses this final scene at Newgate as a departure from the “realism” achieved in the production. Macheath is allowed to live so that this beggar’s opera can follow the Italian opera’s convention of the contrived happy finale.

The Beggar's Opera Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Armens, Sven. John Gay, Social Critic. 1954. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1966. This full-length critical examination of Gay and his work deals in depth with The Beggar’s Opera.

Bronson, Bertrand H. “The Beggar’s Opera.” In Studies in the Comic. University of California Publications in English 8, no. 2. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1941. A fine critical study of The Beggar’s Opera, particularly valuable for placing the work in the context of its time and exploring the links to Italian opera that Gay so skillfully exploited.

Gay, John. The Beggar’s Opera. Larchmont, N.Y.: Argonaut Books, 1961. This edition of the play, a reproduction of the 1729 version, contains the lyrics to all the tunes that Gay adapted.

Irving, William Henry. John Gay: Favorite of the Wits. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1940. Considered the best treatment of Gay’s life and works.

Noble, Yvonne, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Beggar’s Opera.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. Comprises a series of nine critical and informative essays on Gay’s masterpiece as well as an informative introduction by the editor.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. John Gay. New York: Twayne, 1965. An excellent introduction to Gay’s life and works.