Archive for the ‘Beggar's Opera ACT 1 Airs’ Category

Benefits in Marriage, Concealed or Absent?

February 8, 2010

The fourth Air in scene five of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, continues with the already established theme of weak women. The Air begins with declaring love as the “virgin’s hearts” (2617) downfall. To fall in love in this plays society is a despisable act as it can bring no benefit to anyone-only  chagrin. A virgin heart in this context means one that has not been desensitized by the world in which they live, and that can still believe in the idea of love. Mrs. Peachum’s Air serves as a foreshadowing to Polly’s fate, that she is to remain attached to Captain Macheath and so have her “[honor] singed” (2617).

The Air seems to contradict itself in the context of the play, and scene, as the reader discovers that marriage is not commonly practiced. Mr. Peachum, the business man, explains the reasoning in staying single: “Married! If the wench does not know her own profit, sure she knows her own pleasure better than to make herself a property!” (2617).  Not only is this state of union discouraged for reasons of money, but also for the misery it garuntees husband and wife.  The Air promotes marriage though: “If soon she not made a wife’/ Her honor’s singed…” (2617). These lines clearly distinguish honor as valuable and this value as being retained through marriage.

In the context of eigtheenth century England, this is satirizing the emphasis on marriage. Gay is pointing out that women who marry are constraining themselves to a life of being held accountable for their husbands actions, “Can you support the expense of a husband, hussy, in gaming, drinking and whoring?” (2620). I would not say that Gay supports free love, but rather is directly accusing marriage as having few of the conveniences it is supposed to garuntee, such as marital bliss.

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Rat Race (and I’m not talking about the 2001 comedy)

February 2, 2010

The first Air in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera describes a world where the path to success in all tenets of life are riddled with those who would abuse their friends and family to become successful. This theme becomes evident in the first two lines of the air. “Through all the employments of life Each neighbor abuses his brother;” (2614). While the Air exists within the play in the play, I believe that the Airs serve as a direct mouthpiece for Gay to insert his social commentary outside of the immediate context of the play surrounding them.

John Gay’s criticism for business and the “rat race” becomes even less subtle when he writes “All professions be-rogue one another” (2614). Here Gay writes that regardless of profession, there will always be cut-throat competition and good people will fall into the depths of poverty because of it. This sets the stage for play, and the play within the play. The beggar will had to be cut throat and ruthless to get his play read and performed.

The last line completes the critique of business when Gay describes “And the statesman, because he’s so great Thinks his trade as honest as mine” (2614). It is here that Gay admits that he is not immunes to competitive and cunning business practices, but he shows his contempt for politicians who claim  that they are innocent from the dirt  that is competition. Gay laughs at the assertion and reiterates that they are as honest as he his, which given the context makes Gay not very honest.

Wives (not Maids) as Currency

February 2, 2010

John Gay, in Air five of The Beggar’s Opera, explores a woman’s worth in eighteenth century society. The song, which follows Mrs. Peachum’s statement that women are made “better for being another’s property,” expounds upon her thought through similes that liken women to currency (2618). In essence, “Of all the simple things we do,” explains how women are permanently marked and valued through men and, more specifically, through marriage.

Interestingly enough, the Air begins with the notion that unmarried women are “golden ore,” with limitless possibilities (2618). Contrary to older philosophies that regard women as worthless without men, Air five suggests that men merely shape the worth of women, not create value anew.  In fact, and as illustrated by the escapades of Defoe’s Moll Flanders, men are only useful if they possess the ability, namely the fortune, necessary to make a woman worth more than her current value as “golden ore.” Marriage, more pertinent to The Beggar’s Opera, provides the vehicle for upgrading or degrading a woman’s initial value. This issue fuels Mrs. Peachum’s anger towards Polly because she believes that her daughter is lowering her worth by marrying a highwayman. What worries Mrs. Peachum most is that her daughter’s change in value becomes permanent only through marriage, the very goal of Polly and Macheath. As she says to Peachum, “’Tis marriage, husband, that makes it a blemish” (2622).  Essentially marriage, not the relationship in general, creates problems.

The concluding line of the Air, however, entices the most controversy. Continuing upon the preceding rhetorical question, “Why must our Polly, forsooth, differ from her sex, and love only her husband?,” the notion that women become “current in every house” only after marriage certainly contrasts the monogamous nature of Christian matrimony (2618). This irony, and perhaps truth, is a certain victim of Gay’s satire as he attacks the shallowness and immorality that results from the eighteenth century’s social mobility.

Overall, Gay uses Air five to explore the means by which men impress worth upon women through marriage. Also, as illustrated by its none-too-subtle ending, the verse attacks the infidel society that this motive for marriage creates.

The Value of Women

February 2, 2010

The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay has reoccurring themes of money, possessions, and women. In act 1: scene 5, Mrs. Peachum talks about how women are treated like property. During the eighteenth century, money and possessions were greatly valued. Many of the themes in The Beggar’s Opera are seen in the eighteenth century society.

As shown in air 5 of the The Beggar’s Opera, women are compared to gold ore. “A maid is like the golden ore…” (2618). The value of women is determined only after they are married. “[A guinea’s] worth is never known, before it is tried and impressed in the mint” (2618). A married women is compared to a minted guinea. When money is coined, it is stamped, which air 5 describes as being the same as when a women takes her husband’s last name. “A wife’s like a guinea in gold, stamped with the name of her spouse” (2618).

Mrs. Peachum says that men like “minted” women the best because their value has already been determined. “All men are thieves in love, and like a woman the better for being another’s property” (2618). She even refers to women as property. Women are material possessions and are almost brought and traded, “…is bought, or is sold…” (2618). Women are referenced to as money.  Money is a major social status symbol of the eighteenth century. The more money one has the more one can do in society.

Air I Compares Beggars, Thieves and Whores to Lawyers, Priests and Politicians

February 1, 2010

The first Air in the play starts the opera with one of the author’s main messages, that people have vices regardless of their social class. Gay compares husbands and wives to whores and their “rogues.” He points out that priests think that lawyers are cheats and lawyers think the same thing about priests. Finally, he compares politicians to beggars and says the statesmen consider their occupations as honest as beggars’. Gay is saying that the same vices people associate with thieves and whores are also found in lawyers, priests and politicians. The comparison is significant because Gay’s opera displays the vices of thieves and whores, and Gay wants the audience to understand that he intends to attack rich people as well as poor people even though this opera is about poor characters.

In Act I Gay introduces the characters and the twisted world they live in. The criminal justice system is simply a way for certain people to make money, like Peachum and his wife. Peachum and Mrs. Peachum run a business of buying stolen property and fixing the results when the thieves they work with are arrested. This sets up certain rules that the Peachum’s understand but that violate what most people consider moral or good. For example, when a thief is arrested, the Peachum’s only arrange for his freedom if he is a productive theif and successfully brings the Peachums stolen goods. If a thief is unsuccessful, they arrange for him to get arrested and hanged.

In this backward set of rules marriage and love have no place. The Peachum’s daughter Polly Peachum’s love for the thief Macheath is viewed simply as a hindrance to the smooth operation of business and basically a bad business decision for Polly. The first Air tells the audience that they should think of this opera as a comment on both the rich and poor people.