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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
John Gay, in The Beggar’s Opera, uses many airs, or songs, as vehicles of communication. In particular, the relationship between men and women is heavily explored in song throughout the drama. Specifically, airs two, twenty-six, and forty-five, illustrate a type of relationship in which women are deceivingly coy as they take advantage of and ultimately ruin their males.
Air two, sung by the minor character Filch, begins by stating that “woman…seduces all mankind” (2615). The beginning idea is furthered when we learn that “her very eyes can cheat” as “she tricks us of our money with our hearts” (2615). The most interesting aspect of the song, however, is the notion that women are “won by pay,” not love (2615). In essence, Filch describes male-female interactions in which the woman uses her charm only to cheat and take advantage of her men. Thus, as Filch ironically points out in his simile “like wolves by night we roam for prey,” the archetypal depiction of men conquering the helpless female prey is comical in context of all the obvious messages of female seductive influence over men. The roles, as we know them, are reversed and, as Filch suggests, only money can fee’d feminine beauty into the arms of men.
In act two, Macheath, one of the play’s protagonists, gives his own opinion on the matter of relationships, an opinion well weathered through many personal experiences. Originally, Macheath describes a relationship almost opposite to the one presented by Filch. In air twenty-one, Macheath tells of how a woman instantly dispels depression of the heart and how “she sweetly, sweetly / raises the spirits, and charms of our ears” (2629). Upon arrival in Newgate, however, Macheath quickly revokes this romantic ideal and switches his message in air twenty-six to one more reminiscent of air two. In fact, Macheath goes further than Filch as he claims that women do not merely seduce mankind; they ruin it. In Macheath’s new outlook, woman’s eyes, rather than charm, eventually kill in the likeness of a basilisk. This revolution and quite depressing outlook on relationships is explained, perhaps, by Macheath’s situation as he finds that his love of women has led to his downfall.
In act three, air forty-five, Lockit acknowledges the dangers of women and that they are “easy prey” for male temptation; however, Lockit differs in that he blames men for their own ruin, not women. In essence, he is saying that men must take the bait in order to be exposed to ruin, ruin which they would then deserve. Lockit’s viewpoint, understandable for his age and status as a father, reflects the maturity of one who has seen and learned from many ruined inmates. Basically, with the knowledge that women will always be dangling a hook, ready to betray, Lockit argues that men most take it upon themselves to protect from the inevitable ruin that accompanies the indulgence of female temptation.
The three airs, two, twenty-six, and forty-five, follow the evolution of the play’s exploration into the realm of male-female relationships. Starting with the notion that women want to cheat and steal, progressing into the idea that women want to kill and ruin, and finishing with the culmination of these observations into one of male responsibility, the songs detail relationships that are focused on superficiality and devoid of love. Even when true love seems to appear, as in Polly’s case, it is never genuinely reciprocated. Thus, Gay displays relationships as greed and lust centered enterprises which ultimately end in disaster.
In Airs 5, 26 and 45, John Gay describes the power women hold over men. In comparing them to gold, Gay appeals to man’s tendency to be greedy. Men want money and they seek it out just as they seek out “maids” and married women. In Act I Scene 5, Air 5, Mrs. Peachum compares women to money. Mrs. Peachum sings that men like women who are another person’s property. They like maids who have intrinsic golden value, and they like wives as golden guineas stamped with the name of their spouse.
For Gay, women use their power to trap men even to the point of driving them to ruin. In Act II Scene 8, MacHeath sings Air 26 in which he discusses a woman’s ability to trap a man and bring them to ruin. He says that many can escape the dangers of guns, ropes and doctors’ pills. But when it comes to women men are like flies attracted to treacle, and get stuck in the goo. MacHeath is of course, literally trapped by his love for Polly.
Similarly, in Act III Scene 5, Air 45 Peachum and Lockit complain that men are too easily trapped by women. They act like gudgeons and allow themselves to be “hooked” by women. The comparison to fishing ties with MacHeath’s complaint that women have the power to trap men. Despite their knowledge that falling for a woman is like biting on a fish hook, men tend to bite anyway.
Through the Airs, John Gay portrays women as having substantial power over men. The power comes from their “worth” as well as from man’s inability to resist and the ease with which women trap them.
The Beggar’s Opera highlights John Gay’s view towards the relationship between the upper and lower social classes in eighteenth century London. The Airs that are sung serve to pinpoint specific traits that Gay satirizes, whether it is men, women, or occupations. In Act 1, Air 5 highlights the fact that women were viewed as property in the eighteenth century. Men viewed women as if they were theirs to own. The mindset was “A wife’s like a guinea of gold, stamped with the name of her spouse” (2618) because women seemed to be a part of a man’s property. This is also why prostitutes dominated many London streets. The fact that a man could pay for sex placed men above women, on a social standpoint, at all times. If a man were married and wanted a divorce, he would simply get rid of her, as if she were an object with a price. Because of women’s social status in London, men lived wild sex lives with multiple “lovers”.
In Act 2, Air 29 seems to represent a turn in the social classes for women. As women bore children, a new sense of ownership arose. “The first time at the looking-glass, the mother sets her daughter, the image strikes the smiling lass with self-love ever after” shows that babies represent the one thing that women can take care of. While this makes women have a sense of possession, it only last but so long. As time goes on, the child grows up and leaves and eventually loses the love of the mother. While women serve as a piece of property towards men, the children serve as property towards women.
Lastly, in Act 3, Air 45 judges men and women equally. “What grudgeons are we men! Every woman’s easy prey” (2646) satirizes the fact that men in the eighteenth century felt they could have any woman they wanted. Women, on the other hand, served as “bait”. Men thought, “Though we have felt the hook, again we bite and they betray” because women deceived men just as men deceived women. Air 45 compares men and women and describes each as if they have equal impact on each other. In conclusion, Air 45 represents Air 5 and air 29 by combining both views of women and men within the social classes.