How is the theme of poverty presented in John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera?"

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As could be expected from an "opera" inspired by Jonathan Swift -- he of "modest proposal" fame -- "The Beggar's Opera," by John Gays is a biting satire of  the English upperclass and its condenscending, hypocritical treatment of the lower strata of British society.  

Less an opera in the classic sense of the word, "The Beggar's Opera" was more of a "Boston Pops meets Saturday Night Live" production, utilizing popular music of the time rather than original orchestral compositions.  While certainly not glamorizing the downtrodden of England, the play brought the English elite down to the level of the poor and established a sense of moral equivalence between the classes as opposed to the sense of moral superiority that tended to permeate the upper classes.  There was no effort to portray poverty as noble and commendable; rather, the poor were seen as neither more nor less than those with money.  As one character observes early in the play:

"Through all the Employments of Life/ Each Neighbour abuses his Brother; Whore and Rogue they call Husband and Wife: All Professions be rogue one 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."

Lest the point be missed, Gay later has the same character, Peachum, state:

"A Fox may steal your Hens, Sir,/ A Whore your Health and Pence, Sir,/ Your Daughter rob your Chest, Sir,/ your Wife may steal your Rest, Sir.  A Thief your Goods and Plate.  But this is all but picking,/ With Rest, Pence, Chest and Chicken;/ It ever was decreed, Sir,/ If Lawyer's hand is fee'd, Sir,/ He steals your whole Estate."