Archive for February, 2010

Two Antagonists from Two Time Periods

February 21, 2010

After studying the Age of Reason, one cannot but notice the immense change that was commencing in Great Britain. Aside from the philosophical questions and scientific experiments, the social composition of the isle’s communities was shifting toward a crime-based society. People of all types were profiting more than ever off of criminal activity, whether they profit off of justice for such crimes or the exploitation of the people who commit them. In David Liss’s A Conspiracy of Paper, the character Jonathan Wild is remarkably similar to Peachum in “The Beggar’s Opera” because of their occupations as “thief-takers,” yet they differ in the ways they go about their organized crime. Jonathan Wild and Peachum are similar because of their criminal occupations and shrewd methods of betrayal. They both are “thief-takers” which means they encourage thieves to roam the areas around London in search of people to rob or houses to break into. The thieves will steal an object and give it to men like Wild and Peachum, and in return they will be paid annually for their services. However, the downside to serving these crime bosses is that once the boss believes he could make a better profit off of turning you in he will do so; this is what the “thief-taker” title refers to. As Peachum says, he serves a “double capacity, both against rogues and for ‘em…” (2614). Both Wild and Peachum are capable of doing so because they keep very detailed records of each item a thief has returned and uses it as evidence to turn him in for the reward. A part of these records also serve to return “lost” items to their robbed owners like at Wilds “Office for the Recovery of Lost and Stolen Property” (49, COP). These men were both excellent “thief-takers” who profited largely for their efforts but along with great profit came grave apathy from Wild and Peachum. These two characters have lost all morality, if they ever had any, and seem to not have any compassion for the people they so easily betray. For example, Wild turned in Kate for Jemmy’s murder even though he knew that she was not guilty of the charge. What did he care; it was just business. Peachum backs up Wild’s philosophy when he says, “What a dickens is a woman always a-whimpering about murder for? …if business cannot be carried on without it, what would you have a gentleman do?” (2616). Just as Peachum says, “I hate a lazy rogue, by whom one can get nothing ‘till he is hanged” (2616); these men care not how they make their living just as long as they make a profit. Wild and Peachum’s occupations give them great power in the community because of the fear they instill in the criminal mind. The message they send is that if you do them wrong, they will turn you in and see you hang. Kate Cole and Captain Macheath are strong examples of the thieves who feared their respective crime bosses. This is evident for Kate when she refused to talk to Ben about what was going on or who imprisoned her. Only after lots of money from Ben to secure a better place for her to wait to die was she in a talking mood. Also, Captain Macheath started to worry once Peachum was after him; he decided to lay low and he told his friends, “You must continue to act under his discretion, for the moment we break loose from him, our gang is ruined” (2628). These are just two examples of the fear caused by figures like Wild and Peachum; however, the two men do differ. One of the key differences between Wild and Peachum is how they go about betraying their thieves. Peachum uses the law almost in a just way by summoning constables and fetching his prey like he does with Macheath in the bar. He holds him to a fair trial with the evidence that Macheath had provided because of his services. However, Wild goes about the process in a more illegal manner. He will bribe the courts for whatever sentence he wants for almost any individual including his ex-thieves. When referring to Kate, he told Ben that with his influence “…I might have chose to spare her the rope” but it was inconvenient for him because he would rather use her life as a means to get a favor out of Ben. Ben confirms to himself Wild’s power by saying, “I believed he could arrange to spare her life. A man like Wild would have precisely the influence to abort her trial, just as he would have the power to see her hang should he choose to do so” (274, COP). Ben understands just how much power Wild has in the courts, something that Peachum does not seem to have with all his complaints of the courts and their lawyers. Another difference is the way that the “thief-takers” are viewed by the community. Wild is seen as a hero who turns in thieves and returns property who even though may be bad he is helping overall. Referring to Wild, Ben thinks that “…most everyone suspected what this man was, but crime had grown so rampant…that all who lived in the metropolis wished for a hero, and Wild proved flamboyant and ruthless enough to announce himself to be precisely that…He had become the Thief-Taker General” (49, COP). Yet “The Beggar’s Opera” does not mention Peachum’s appearance of a hero at all, just a crook. Therefore their appearances differ just like their family backgrounds. Peachum and Wild have two weaknesses that are quite different; Peachum has a family that he cares for and Wild has adversaries. Wild on the other hand has absolutely no one that he might not betray in an incident. Even his right hand man Mendes is subject to betrayal as Ben noted. Regarding their adversaries, Peachum never mentions one throughout “The Beggar’s Opera,” but Wild states and implies a few times how Ben Weaver is his adversary and he wishes to be rid of him; when Wild says “I wish to keep you [Ben] out of my business that I claim for myself. The public approves of me heartily, and I have no desire to compete with you for the trade” (270, COP). So it seems that Wild and Peachum have weaknesses but they are in different forms. David Liss does a great job describing the historical figure of Jonathan Wild in A Conspiracy of Paper. This character relates perfectly to Gay’s Peachum because they are both in similar occupations and circumstances that have made them the cruel bosses that they are. However, they differ in the ways they go about their business, the views on them and their business, and the weaknesses of their businesses. The characters of Peachum and Wild are formed in two different time periods, yet they still compare to be so similar in stature.


The Business of Crime and The Conspiracy of Paper

February 21, 2010

William Belt
English – Grove to Grubstreet – Honors Project
(emailed Friday, Feb. 19, 2010)

To make a living through crime requires planning and organization. Whether a prostitute and a thief conspire to rob a man, or a large corporation fights to protect the value of its company stock, the enterprises need the support of organization and planning, and a network of criminals. In The Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss, the author describes several criminal enterprises that share one thing in common. To be successful, they are all highly organized and well connected.

At the start of the story, Liss describes two criminals who are unsuccessful, a prostitute named Kate Cole who earns additional money stealing from her customers and her partner Jemmy. Kate and Jemmy are low level criminals who earn a living by running a scam. Kate gets her customers drunk and take them to a hidden alley where she robs them as they sleep, or after her partner Jemmy beats them up. Kate and Jemmy show that even at its most basic level, crime involves conspiracy and cooperation.

Kate and Jemmy also rely on a more complicated network. Kate and Jemmy worked for Jonathan Wild. They were forced to work for Wild because the simple act of robbery requires support. Stolen property has no value if it cannot be sold. Kate’s apartment full of stolen property shows the helplessness of a thief with no backer. “She had enough here that could she but sell it, she might acquire a neat little fortune” (33). When the enterprise is working, Wild purchases and sells stolen property. He also acts as an unreliable protector, turning his thieves in for reward money when they stopped earning money for him. Despite the danger of being “double crossed”, Wild provides Kate and Jemmy the organization needed to turn stolen property into cash.

As the story unfolds, we learn of even more powerful criminal elements. The Judicial system is for sale to the highest bidder. When Weaver is arrested and faces charges of manslaughter for the death of an innocent bystander, the decision whether to hang him or set him free is determined by whoever bribes the magistrate first. Jonathon Wild’s criminal enterprise remains successful because he paid off court officials. Liss echoes Daniel Defoe’s description of how things worked at Newgate Prison, the infamous London jail. According to both authors, condemned criminals were shown leniency if the officials were bribed. Wild’s infiltration of the judicial system allows him to control whether criminals are hanged after he marks them with “double crosses.”
Jonathon Wild’s operation was as organized as a large business. Liss describes the South Sea Company as being run by the most powerful and best organized criminal forces in the story. South Sea Company and the Bank of England engage in criminal actions to compete with each other and to become rich. At the heart of the story is criminal activity designed to enhance or destroy the value of South Sea Company stock. While Jonathon Wild relies on thieves and prostitutes to make him money, South Sea Company and the Bank of England contend with dishonest “stock jobbers” who try to raise and lower the company stock prices. The officers also hire thugs and murderers to defend their wealth and to kill people who threaten their business.

By the end of the story Liss has turned London society upside down and revealed criminal elements at every level of society. Kate and Jemmy are no better than Sir Owen, who is actually Martin Rochester. Sir Owen is a criminal stock jobber who has forged South Sea stock. He has even asked Jonathan Wild for his help selling the forged stock. When Weaver’s father threatened to uncover the plot, Sir Owen had them killed. Yet Sir Owen claims to be a gentleman. Weaver’s unmasking of Sir Owen as Martin Rochester occurs as Sir Owen attends the theatre with his fiancé and other wealthy Londoners. Even as Weaver is hauled away for manslaughter, Sir Owen walks free after recovering from his injuries, but is then killed by unidentified thugs.

The officers of South Sea Company are also criminals. Nathan Adelman does not convincingly deny South Sea’s responsibility for Sir Owen’s death. His sole interest is protecting the value of South Sea stock. He pays Miriam five thousand pounds for her agreement not to divulge the existence of forged stock. Sir Owen’s death helps the company because he cannot tell the world that some South Sea stock certificates are fake. Nathan Adelman also admits to Weaver that he has made himself rich while working to increase the value of South Sea stock. Nathan Adelman is similar to Jonathon Wild. Both rely on low level criminals to carry out their wishes, and both benefit from the criminal actions of others. Adelman even admitted that he made money when stock jobbers spread rumors that the “pretender” to the throne was riding into London to assume power. While Adelman’s methods of getting rich are more sophisticated, he is no more honest than Jonathon Wild.

In A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss describes criminal behavior by characters from every level of London society. Kate and Jemmy are common thieves, but they turn out to have much in common with Sir Owen who plots to forge South Sea stock certificates. Jonathon Wild is an infamous crime boss, but he has much in common with Nathan Adelman, a respected leader at the South Sea Company. For David Liss, criminal behavior exists at every social class. The link between these criminals from different social classes underscores the level of organization necessary for a criminal enterprise to succeed. Just as Jonathon Wild runs a business with low level thieves working for and sometimes against him, the South Sea Company runs a business that depends at times on criminal activities to protect its stock value and to eradicate its enemies. For David Liss, successful criminal endeavors require organization and planning just like running a business.

Lady Mary Who?

February 20, 2010

Lady Mary Montagu, or Lady Mary Pierrepont, was a woman of great character and accomplishment in the eighteenth century. She exhibited intelligence and determination throughout her life; she was not satisfied simply being the daughter of a wealthy Whig peer. She is remembered mainly for her letters but during her life was known for her poetry-and audacious choices. Her writing “reveals the mind of a woman who is not willing to accept the stereotypes imposed on her by men” (Norton/2585) and contributes to the changing female roles in society. However, in The Scandal of The Season, she is a background character. The leading female roles in the novel belong to those moving in the thick of society. While this novel is not intended to portray women as the secret strength of society, it essentially ignores the most interesting female character. Arabella Fermor may be beautiful but she did do anything as ambitious not teach herself Latin as a child.

The portrayal of Lady Mary in The Scandal of The Season is simple. She appears several times in conversation and environment-but never is recognized for the prominent person that she is. Her scandalous involvement with Edward Wortley Montagu is mentioned several times: “I heard that she is secretly engaged to Edward Wortley…but if she marries him, the earl will cut her off with nothing” (The Scandal of The Season/100). Lady Mary was an anomaly and married for love rather than position. By involving her in the novel through such insignificant conversations, Sophie Gee misses out on making a stronger example of a strong woman of the period. In fact, Gee depicts Lady Mary as just as weak a woman in love as Arabella and the Blount’s. When Pope witnesses Edward and Lady Mary interact he remarks that he “was astonished by the tone of her voice. He had expected her to be as forthright with her suitor as she had been with him” (Scandal/239). This description eclipses the truth of Lady Mary, as evident through her poem “The Lover: A Ballad”: “I never will share with the wanton coquette,/ Or be caught by a vain affectation of wit” (41-42). While her writing is not fact that she refused to submit to the vulnerability of romance, it is more reliable than The Scandal of The Season. The fact that she eventually marries for love is never mentioned, leading readers without outside knowledge to place no significance on her relationship with Mr. Wortley.

The mention of Lady Mary that I find most interesting is at the masked ball. She dances with Pope and they hold an extended conversation, leaving Pope “dazzled by the speed with which her conversation moved” (Scandal/210). Knowing that later in life they will feud publicly through their writings, it is interesting to imagine such a situation where they were amiable. As little significance that she has in the plot, Lady Mary does have a defined ‘background’ role. Her actions are singled out precisely, as they should be since she is not some courtier in society, and give the very dramatic plot some sturdy verisimilitude-however little it is elaborated on. She is the only woman to participate in conversations of business, as shown at the party where Lord Salisbury’s slave enterprise is discussed, another point to single her out from the other women but she does not have any profound position. At another gathering she wins a large sum of money at a round of Ombre. This is the moment in the novel where Lady Mary is portrayed the strongest: “The baron and the duke play boldly for the ladies’ sakes,” Lady Mary said in her clear voice. “But I answer them by betting three hundred pounds that I will beat you all. And she threw a note of hand into the center, without the slightest trace of agitation or heightened feeling” (Scandal/241). While the other women are supported chivalrously by their husbands, Lady Mary places her own bet. This scene portrays the unique character that Lady Mary was.

In The Scandal of The Season, Lady Mary Pierrepont is described inconsistently with her real identity. Gee does eventually single out the importance of her role and how she was an iconic member of society, but does so in a fashion that leaves much to be desired. While this book most definitely was not about the changing female mores it could have developed it as an underlying theme, resulting in a much more enriching read. The novel is well written but lacks depth, Lady Mary could have played a much larger role and solved that issue.

Probability: A Misleading Tool on the Road to Discovery

February 18, 2010

On the search for the man who murdered his father, Benjamin Weaver was prepared to due anything in order to get to the bottom of this conspiracy. His experience in the ring as a boxer gave him the toughness to be an intimidating presence in the eyes of many suspects; however, he lacked much of the detective skills to make any progress. Weaver was prepared to beat the information out of anybody who crossed his path. His problem was finding the people he needed to get information out of. Weaver called upon his friend Elias to find a more methodical approach to his investigation. This encounter was when Weaver was exposed to a new method to finding the answers he desired, probability. Probability was a logical method for Weaver to use in his search as he encountered many men associated with the South Sea Company and the Bank of England; however, it ultimately led Weaver in the wrong direction as he became suspicious of the wrong suspects.

When Benjamin Weaver was approached by Balfour about the murder of his father, he was eager to get to the bottom of this conspiracy; however, he was aware that he did not have to tools to find the murderer. As a result, he called upon his philosophical friend Elias to find the best way to approach finding his father’s murderer, and Elias introduced the theory of probability. The first thing Elias said to Weaver about probability was, “you must work with probability rather than facts. If you can only go by what is probable, you will sooner or later learn the truth” (162). Weaver had to go about his business under the assumption that all “the events surrounding his murder were connected” (182). Elias made it clear to Weaver that it would not be possible to think with his fists in such an elaborate conspiracy. Elias made sure Weaver knew that this investigation was a process and it would not be possible to find the man who killed his father immediately.

Weaver used probability very well in his ability to connect one person or event to another person that ultimately got him one step closer to finding the murderer. He resisted beating the information out of every person he came across and approached them in a methodical manner that produced the answers he wanted. For example, Weaver showed great restraint and use of probability when he learned about the rivalry between his father, Samuel Lienzo, and Perceval Bloathwait. Bloathwait disliked Lienzo because Lienzo persuaded him to invest a fortune into a stock that ultimately plummeted. This could be seen as bad luck, but Bloathwait believed that Lienzo was aware that the stock would plummet. With the provided information, it seems probable that Bloathwait is a likely suspect in the murder of his father; however, Weaver looked into this affair more in depth and found out that Bloathwait had no incentive to kill Samuel Lienzo. Weaver found out that his father and Bloathwait both wanted to expose the South Sea Company’s forged stocks that were circulating in order to stop them from gaining too much power. This discovery shows that Bloathwait had more incentive to have Lienzo alive than to have him dead. Throughout the novel, Weaver’s familiarization with the stock market and the rivalry between the Bank of England and the South Sea Company proved to be crucial in his use or probability. He was often able to associate the men he came across with either the South Sea Company or the Bank of England and use probability to find out if it was logical for a suspect to want his father dead or alive. When Weaver learned that Martin Rochester was the man that organized the murder of his father, he tried to use the connections he had in order to find this man; however, “Elias’s probability had yielded nothing but failure” (347).

Weaver made all the connections he needed to and knew enough about the stock market to know who would want his father alive and who would want him dead; however, he could not draw any conclusions as to who Martin Rochester was. He talked to Jonathan Wild who gave very vague information. He talked to all the men who he thought would know where to find Rochester, but to no avail. As we learn at the end of the novel, Sir Owen is Martin Rochester. Elias’s theory of probability showed no way of this being the case. How could Weaver have suspected the man that he had been in such close proximity with throughout the entire search? It was illogical and improbable for Sir Owen to be the murderer, but he was. The use of probability ultimately failed Weaver as Jonathan Wild had to essentially tell Weaver through Sir Owen’s fake girlfriend, Sarah Decker. It was not probable that Weaver was set up by Jonathan Wild to kill Sir Owen, but that was that case as improbable as it may be.

Elias’s theory of probability was useful for Weaver until he hit a roadblock and could not draw anymore conclusions. He ultimately just confused himself more when he began to question everybody around him, even when they were telling the truth. There was only one connection that Weaver was unable to make, and that connection was the items in the package that he rescued for Sir Owen before he began his inquiry. Had he made this connection, his search would have been much quicker. Ultimately, Elias’s use of probability was beneficial to learning who wanted his father dead. Nevertheless, it was extremely misleading because he had no reason to suspect Sir Owen, so he ruled him out of his possible suspects. This poorly drawn conclusion on the basis of probability almost allowed Sir Owen to escape unscathed had Jonathan Wild not bailed Weaver out of his jail sentence and essentially told him that Sir Owen was the murderer.

Being Single: A Precarious Position

February 18, 2010

            Eighteenth century London housed much political and religious tension.  On the surface, the first decade of the century, the setting for Sophie Gee’s Scandal of the Season, witnessed rising uneasiness between the Whigs and Tories, and perhaps more notably, between the Catholics and Protestants.  Underlying these apparent conflicts, a far more radical change was occurring; the landed aristocracy of the previous centuries was slowly fusing with the moneyed-interest merchant class.  Marriage provided the medium for the dissolution of established class barriers.  In a way, interclass marriages fulfilled multiple classes’ desires as the aristocracy could replenish, and in some cases, increase their estates, while the merchant class could marry into aristocratic titles.  Also, marriages between Catholics and Protestants, usually among aristocrats, allowed Catholic families to regain their reputations lost from Jacobite persecution.  With such an increasing value being placed on well-wrought marriages, it is not surprising that, in essence, a marketplace for unmarried women developed.  Women began to be “cultivated [for] the acquisition of a rich husband” (40).  What is often overlooked, however, is the unique status of single women, for sale, on the marriage marketplace.  With a chaste reputation greatly contributing to a woman’s pre-marital worth, a promiscuous single woman had much to fear.  Marriage, therefore, provided single women the security to be acceptably licentious.

            In eighteenth century London’s marriage marketplace, “reputation [was] the most volatile of stocks; incalculably high at one moment, worth nothing at all at the next” (57).  In “so tempestuous a market,” one unchaste action, before marriage, could destroy a woman’s marketplace prospects (57).  Especially without the security of great fortune or noble birth, as in Arabella Fermor’s case, a clean reputation was essential. In The Scandal of the Season, The Lady Castlecomber’s position in society starkly apposes Arabella’s societal position.  Charlotte Castlecomber, a well married noble, has the security to engage in her late night escapes.  Arabella’s reputation, on the other hand, is under no such security, for she lacks a husband. The Lady Castlecomber’s marital status allows her to follow her own advice given to Lord Petre: “Marry the person [your family wants] you to, and seek your pleasures elsewhere” (104).  Aware that her scandalous actions with Lord Petre could result in ignominy, Arabella begins to desire the lifestyle expressed in Charlotte Castlecomber’s advice, a lifestyle that must first begin with marriage.

            Sexually pure before her encounters with Lord Petre, Arabella had never felt the desire to expedite her marriage. It was not until realizing the precariousness of her situation as a loose, single woman that Arabella begins to crave the security offered by marriage. Roughly halfway through novel, after just losing a “good-natured” suitor to another woman, Arabella is reminded that “her position was precarious” (117).  Arabella continues her thought in wondering what a kind husband, such as her foregone suitor, “might have done for herself” (117). The notion of “[being] settled; [of being] secure” begins to entice Arabella to marry.

            Contrasting Arabella’s expression of the precariousness of her situation as a single woman is Lady Castlecomber’s comment regarding her own position as a married woman.  After a highly detailed rendezvous with Lord Petre, Charlotte says “Do not forget that I am lucky to have [Lord Castlecomber] as my husband … [for] I could not have you in my bed if I were unmarried” (105). Castlecomber then extends her thought in a comment very applicable to Arabella’s situation by stating that if she were unmarried, “[she] should be bent entirely upon safeguarding [her] reputation from attack” (105).  In hindsight, the scene is quite ironic given that Lord Petre becomes the attacker that besieges Arabella.

            It is clear, at least in Sophie Gee’s interpretation, that marriage in Alexander Pope’s time provided women the protection to be safely involved with multiple men.  Somewhere among the three hundred years between the early eighteenth century and today, something changed.  In a way, marriage in today’s society has come to play the opposite role of its eighteenth century counterpart.  A general stereotype of marriage in today’s society would point to a process that attempts to inhibit promiscuity, not to endorse it.  The popular practices of throwing bachelor and bachelorette parties provide evidence for marriage’s shifting purposes as some couples attempt to purge themselves of all promiscuity before matrimonial monogamy.  Some modern women, perhaps women that were not ready to marry in the first place, claim that marriage chained them down with its monogamous expectations.  Such statements are largely antithetical to the Lady Castlecomber’s assertion that marriage grants sexual freedom.

            What explains the dramatic shift in marriage’s effects on women in the last three centuries?  The answer lies in the changing reasons for why people marry.  Before and during the eighteenth century, marriages were arranged for the maximum obtainment of wealth and status.  As wealth began to accumulate in the hands of merchants and other non-aristocratic citizens, class lines were crossed in an attempt to keep wealth and status confined to a new aristocracy.  With the rise of new forms of wealth, the defined aristocratic boundary crumbled as classes mixed.  Now, although some would argue that aristocratic boundaries still exist in the western world, people tend to marry for love rather than societal advancement.  When people began considering marriage as an emotional arrangement, not a business arrangement, monogamy became an expectation while protected promiscuity through marriage became a benefit of the past.

                                             Works Cited:

Gee, Sophie. The Scandal of the Season. New York City, NY: Scribner, 2007.

Eighteenth Century Wealth and Corruption

February 17, 2010

In his novel A conspiracy of Paper, David Liss weaves together a believable tale of intrigue and murder using conventions and styles that emulate those of notable eighteenth century novelists such as Daniel Defoe. Situated in 1719, the novel details Benjamin Weaver’s mysterious quest for justice and acceptance in a London that is becoming more and more involved with exchange alley and the replacement of coins by paper currency and investment bonds. Also, Benjamin Weaver’s journey provides a realistic and historically accurate description of a London underground that was uncommonly large and yet consolidated in the hands of only a few. Perhaps most importantly, Weaver’s journey, and indeed his profession as well, provide an in-depth look into the corruption of eighteenth century London’s justice system, a corruption centered on money and advanced by the influential crime syndicates and the newly emergent, powerful businesses.

In a time when social mobility increased dramatically as wealth began to include more than just land, many turned to crime as the quickest and easiest way to acquire money. With an increase in crime rate, a system of justice was loosely established to protect the honest citizens; however, unfortunately, the constables, prison-keepers, court judges, and magistrates found themselves corrupting the system as they, too, attempted to profit at every turn in hopes of finding wealth. As Weaver describes a group of constables “they were as much a pair of blackguards as ever performed the task of justice in this town…for they were known villains who delighted only in random violence” (324). This system, or should I say, lack of system, provided the foundation for powerful thief-takers, such as the notorious Jonathan Wild, to emerge and prosper. Weaver’s uncle illustrates the influence of Wild in saying that “in certain kinds of trade, one cannot but deal with Wild” (112). Elias, Weaver’s surprisingly sage Scottish friend, choices the adjective “uncertain” as most appropriate for the age, and it is precisely this uncertainty that allows for the prototype crime lords to thrive as they provide strength and stability, albeit unjust (427).

The thief-takers, however, were also aided by the punitive system. Weaver best illustrates the corruption with his concerns, “our legal system…is a terrible and fearful thing, and no man, guilty or innocent, wishes to stand before it” (294). On another occasion he says, “Faced with the arbitrary nature of our legal system, I had cause to worry, for if someone in power wished me bound over for trial, then I could see no way to avoid that fate” (419-20). Essentially, people and organizations of power could readily manipulate the law to protect themselves and hinder those who could do them harm—a lesson which Weaver learns firsthand.

What is most intriguing, and certainly most relevant to this novel, is the way in which power is obtained in eighteenth century London. Unlike in the days of the landed gentry, power was beginning to fade away from those who claimed their influence only from aristocratic lineages. Wealth became the prerequisite of power and, as people began to feel the accessibility of money, bribery and other such mechanisms only increased the power of wealth. Thus, with the combination of increasing wealth, and consequently power, and a fledgling legal system, the corruption of the period is better understood, if not justified.

This relatively newfound power from wealth provides the reason, at least indirectly, for Samuel Lienzo’s murder and Weaver’s consequent quest for justice. Today, in a country whose currency is valued only on expectations and promises, it is hard to imagine the transformation that eighteenth century London was experiencing as solid money began to find replacements in bonds and investment notes. Continuing on the theme of uncertainty, people worried what would happen to their money, no longer able to store their coins and have the satisfaction of empirical ownership. Essentially, a financial stability would be necessary to convince people to buy into the system of paper that was so championed by the South Sea Company. In proposing the notion, albeit truthfully, that false stock is in circulation, Lienzo, and later Weaver and Miriam, threaten to scare the timid buyers into thinking that their paper wealth is in jeopardy. In a time when wealth equals power and the ability to manipulate the law, such a scare would be disastrous and would certaintly be reason enough to cause Weaver so much trouble.

Overall, Liss’s novel shows us the power and influence of wealth in eighteenth century London and its ability to cause corruption strong enough to pervade every level of justice as crime becomes a new business, much like those new businesses on exchange alley, capable of creating and destroying men.

Not Making Sandwiches

February 10, 2010

Throughout John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera men sing of womankind’s power. Though from a man’s perspective, women wield their powers of persuasion for evil. Filch, Macheath, and Lockit curse women for outsmarting them and being desirable. Air 2 sung by Filch suggests that crafty thieving originated with women. Macheath compares women to the mythical basilisk in Air 26. Men return to women despite knowing the pain that awaits them is the moral of Lockit’s Air 45. Women of the eighteenth-century had little societal value without a husband, so naturally within those constraints women used their considerable intelligence to obtain a husband. Or they could use their street smarts and attention to emotion to convince people of their security and then relieve them of their valuables. The male characters in The Beggar’s Opera simultaneously curse women for ensnaring them and acknowledge their capabilities jealously.

Peachum decides that Betty Sly, one of his gang of thieves, shall escape transportation because “[he] can get more by her staying in England” (2614). Her ability to charm people into giving her their money or forgetting to guard their purses brings Peachum a profit. As the head of a crime ring, Peachum values any criminal talents, which perpetuate his prosperity. So, while Filch may be disparaging women for “[seducing] all mankind” on the surface and comparing women to wolves, he and Peachum respect this profitable seduction (2615).

Macheath, the hero of the underworld, like Peachum works in a field where efficient killing and plundering is admirable. Having the powers of a basilisk whose gaze and exhalations kill would expedite taking people’s money. After becoming imprisoned thanks in part to a woman, Macheath compares women to basilisks (2635). Also, Macheath expresses his frustration in song form about the susceptibility to overindulgence in women.

In Act III, Lockit perpetuates the idea that men cannot help themselves when it comes to women. He sings, “Though we have felt the hooks, again / We bite and they betray” (2646).  Women have control over men that men themselves do not understand. Lockit proposes to use this forgetful tendency to return Macheath to Peachum’s service. Women may betray or not do actually what is wished, but Lockit finds their irresistibility useful. If he could ensnare Macheath himself, he would, but alas.

Polly’s Allegiance

February 10, 2010

The main conflict of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera begins when Peachum and Mrs. Peachum confirm that Polly has married, even in a somewhat unofficial manner, Captain Macheath.  Three Airs in particular focus on tracing the actual act of Polly’s marrying Macheath and consequently shed light on who holds Polly’s allegiance during the play. 

            The largest fault that Polly’s parents find in her decision to marry, even larger than the loss of the family’s hopes to increase their social standing, is that her filial obedience will be usurped by the loyalty owed to her husband.  Peachum understands the implications of losing his daughters obedience and sees in his daughter’s actions his own ruin, as she will be expected to inform her husband, if questioned, about the true nature of her father’s business.  In essence, Peachum realizes that Polly’s knowledge could potentially give Macheath all the evidence necessary to peach Peachum. 

            Peachum, at least initially, falsely worries of Macheath’s access to Polly’s knowledge for Macheath recognizes what a huge loss Peachum’s services would be to his crew’s operations.  Peachum’s belief that Polly will be more alleged to Macheath than himself, however, is an accurate assumption supported by Polly’s changing sentiments regarding her marriage in the Airs.    

            In Air 8, Polly justifies her marriage to Macheath in a manner that attempts to please her parents.  Polly asks the question of “Will Cupid our mothers obey?” and in a roundabout way, negatively answers her own question (2621).  Using such reasoning, “for fear [her parents] should chide,” and because it was both “safest and best” for her family, Polly marries Macheath (2621).  So even though a supernatural force (Cupid) caused Polly to fall in love with Macheath, she justifies her marriage as an act to save her honor and reputation while allowing her family to maintain a modicum of decency.  Clearly, in Act I, Polly’s nominal allegiance, is to her family. 

            Air 39, however, openly contrasts some of Polly’s sentiments expressed in Air 8 and confirms Peachum’s worry that Macheath has come to hold Polly’s loyalty.  In perhaps a somewhat unusual interpretation, Polly’s words in Air 39 represent the somewhat stereotypical ideology of a rebellious teenager.  Polly stops justifying her marriage as an act to protect her family and begins to fall back on the idea of justifying her marriage because of love.  Polly even seems to defy her parents as she claims that “When parents draw against [their child’s mind to marry], / the true-love’s knot they faster bind” (2641).  Polly now is acting upon love, opposing the societal norms upheld by her parents. Because of Polly’s love for Macheath and her comment that her parent’s disapproval will only strengthen her tie with him, it is safe to say that Polly, in Act II, is loyal to Macheath, not to her mother and father.

            Air 49 is one possible conclusion to a triplet of Airs dealing with Polly’s altering allegiance for it expresses the result of Polly’s disobeying her parents and falling in love with a typical eighteenth century man.  In a split thought between Polly and Lucy, Air 49 states that “When [women] fly [men], they pursue. / But leave us when they’ve won us” (2649). Polly has gone against her parents wishes, regardless of her attempted justification to her parents in Air 8, and has paid the price for her disobedience.  Had the play ended as it inevitably should have, Macheath would have hanged, Polly would have received no widow money, for her marriage was illegitimate, her parents would be dead, and she would have lost her value on the eighteenth century marriage marketplace.

            In combination with all the other satirical aspects of Gay’s work, perhaps he is also displaying the danger of an eighteenth century woman’s going against her parent’s matrimonial wishes. It seems that a daughter’s disobedience, as in Polly’s case, could lead not only to her own figurative ruin, but also to the literal ruin of her family, as they hang for events precipitated by her actions. With reputation and social status relying on transactions in the marriage marketplace, a young woman struck by love is blinded to the repercussions initiated by her whimsical actions.

The Evolution of Relationship Mores

February 10, 2010

A theme that John Gay discusses several times in The Beggar’s Opera is relationship dynamics. In the satirical representation of society in The Beggar’s Opera, chastity is not praised. A woman is supposed to play several men in order to maintain her security, with only the use of her charms.

In Air twenty-two Captain Macheath states that “beauty’s a flower despised in decay” (2630).  This statement is valid, as physical beauty is only valuable when it exists in the present-not in hindsight. This image of a flower is contrasted in Air six where Polly says “But, when once plucked, ‘tis no longer alluring” (2619).  This statement fits with Polly’s stance on relationships as that of being between two people. But, it does not fit with the play’s accepted relationship dynamic, that one must maintain the uncertainty of connection in order to meet ones own ends. The image of a flower is contrasted in between these two Airs, in one Macheath advocates enjoying the beauty of youth, and in the other Polly addresses the negatives of pandering to ones suitors. Air forty-five offers another view on relationship dynamics: “Though [men] have felt the hook, again/ We bite and they betray” (2646). This portrays men as willing to commit, but being deceived by women. The three views presented all contrast to provide a very confusing depiction of what the desired relationship status is. Do men want security, or to ‘pluck’ the flower of youth? Do women want the same?

Air forty-five describes men as being “trapped” (2646) and refused by women: “To her he flies, again he’s clapped/ Within the wiry grate” (2646).  This contrasts with Macheath’s statement that “She alone who that employs, well deserves her beauty” (2630). Macheath supports women making best use of their advantages, so far to say that those who don’t make use of their charms don’t deserve them. He does not share the same view as Lockit, that men are “woman’s easy prey” (2646). Polly, however, views it that men must orbit around the women: “Near [her] the bees in play flutter and cluster/ And gaudy butterflies frolic around” (2619).  These three juxtaposing opinions about how relationships should fundamentally exist reveal the lack of agreement on the subject in the real eighteenth century London. During this period women were becoming more independent, like Eliza Heywood, through owning their own publishers and holding more weight in the business world. Yet, they were still expected to remain chaste and moral. As shown through Gay satirizing the situation, no one knew what to make of this developing female sexuality. Should women embrace it and enjoy the beauty of their youth? Or, should they look for commitment and security through marriage, like Polly does?

Hypocritical Paranoia

February 10, 2010

   The success of The Beggar’s Opera lies in Gay’s superb ability to blur the line separating reality and performance. References to the audience and entrances of the beggar and player keep the audience in a state of confusion regarding reality and performance. The beggar’s interaction with the player set the reality guessing game in motion when they review “the play within the play” and how it will thrive due to its inclusion of all themes, scenes, and “similes that are in all your celebrated operas” (2613). One of the themes continuously stress throughout the play is the conflict between men and women. Airs 2 and 26 state that women ruin men while Air 49 states that the men break down the women, but these clashing perspectives only support that the sexes equally destroy each other.

   Airs 2 and 26 both support the opinion that “He that tastes woman, ruin meets” (Air 26, 2634). These two airs of acts one and two contradict Act 3’s air 49, but this does not indicate a changing point of view as the play progresses, merely a change in bias. Airs 2 and 26 are sung by men, Filch and Macheath, compared to Air 49, which is sung by Polly and Lucy. Airs 26 and 49 are also quite personal because the singers refer to their own love triangle; therefore, Macheath’s reference simile comparing women to a “basilisk [that] is sure to kill” (2634) might be exaggerated considering his circumstances. Filch’s Air 2 is more of a general attack on women and how they “cheat” and “trick [mankind] of our money with our hearts.” Polly and Lucy contradict these men by observing the “curse [that] attends woman’s love” when they seek to please men that will “leave us when they’ve won us’ (2649). This change in opinion only seems to come from a change in bias. Men think women spite them and women the opposite. What Gay is trying to point out, is that men and women seek to ruin each other; everyone always blames someone else.

   Airs 2, 26, and 49 argue of the conflict that ensues between the sexes. Filch’s air is a general attack on women’s “wheedling arts” (2615) while Macheath and Lucy and Polly react to specific situation. The fact that two men and two women say the opposite opinion on the matter indicates a tendency to blame others. Neither is wrong but both groups are hyperbolic. This stalemate of the sexes is seen in works like Moll Flanders where characters fail to take responsibility for situations spawned by their greed. Gay shows that the paranoia that women seek to destroy men is foolish because both men and women do so; they are equal in that they both are guilty.