The Beggar’s Opera

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

Gay’s opera ingeniously blends comedy and satire. It has clever stage business. It spoofs the affectations of Italian opera and the sentimentalism of popular plays. It draws a stinging analogy between thieves and politicians. It attacks society’s worship of power and money.

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The audience first meets the Beggar, the opera’s author, who hopes for success by catering to contemporary theatrical taste. The opera then begins, showing the plot of Peachum (ringleader and fence) to betray Macheath. Though a skilled robber, Macheath is expendable: Peachum must sacrifice some criminal to the authorities, and Peachum resents Macheath’s wooing of his daughter Polly.

Peachum imprisons Macheath, but Lucy, jailer Lockit’s daughter, has also been promised marriage by Macheath; moreover, she is pregnant. Hoping a free man will prove a good husband, Lucy helps Macheath to escape.

Lockit arranges another betrayal of Macheath, who is immediately sentenced to execution. He laments his fate until four more “wives” appear; preferring death to marital confusion, Macheath willingly heads for the gallows. The Beggar now intervenes. Since audiences like happy endings, the Beggar changes the denouement and spares his hero.

The plot is less important than the satiric dialogues and soliloquies. Peachum and Lockit compare their professions to that of the politician. Polly and Lucy lament the infidelity of lovers and of the world in general. Macheath possesses the veneer of a dramatic hero, but at heart he is a deceiver.

Nonetheless Gay makes his satiric points with great humor. A crowd of clownish thieves and comic prostitutes populate the underworld, and the play resounds with ironic songs set to traditional English ballad tunes which express the singer’s knavery in sweet, lyrical melody.


Armens, Sven. John Gay, Social Critic

(The entire section contains 480 words.)

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Critical Evaluation