The Beggar's Opera Summary
by John Gay

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The Beggar's Opera 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 Lucy Lockit, the jailer’s daughter. As Macheath freely admits, she is his wife but for the ceremony. Lucy hears of his gallantry toward Polly and can only be convinced of his sincerity by his consenting to an immediate marriage.

Peachum and Lockit, meanwhile, agree to split the reward for Macheath. As he goes over his accounts, however, Peachum finds cause to question his partner’s honesty. One of his men was convicted, although he bribed Lockit to have the man go free. Peachum’s informer, Mrs. Coaxer, was likewise defrauded of information money. The quarrel between Peachum and Lockit is short-lived, however, as they are well aware that each has the power to hang the other. After his talk with Peachum, Lockit warns his daughter that Macheath’s fate is sealed. He advises her to buy herself widow’s weeds and to be cheerful; since she cannot have the highwayman and his money, too, she might as well make use of the time that is left to extract what riches she can from him.

There is no clergyman to be found that day, but Lucy softens toward her philandering lover so far as to agree to see if her father can be bought off. She just consents to help him when Polly appears in search of her husband. Macheath manages to convince Lucy of his faithfulness by disowning Polly, who is carried off by the angry Peachum. After they leave,...

(The entire section is 1,070 words.)