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“The Beggar’s Opera” by John Gay

This essay will analyze the character of Captain Macheath from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. The character analysis will pay particular attention to the multi-faceted nature of Macheath. Rather than adopting one position or another in plot and circumstance, Macheath drives the action of The Beggar’s Opera specifically by showing a plurality of faces and inclinations. He is charming, loyal to his men and is the only character in the play that reacts with anger to the corruption he is involved in. Nevertheless, he is a womanizer, gambler, and thief, which are traditionally not characteristics of true heroes. Although Macheath is as heroic and honorable as could be expected of a highwayman, in other areas of life he is deeply faulted. This essay will argue that the heroic characteristics of courage and loyalty that he possesses are revealed not to extend to Macheath’s dealings with women, but that Macheath’s womanizing tendency does not represent a break with his overall character.

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The Beggar’s Opera is a political satire set in a society which is primarily motivated by financial gain. Macheath is the only character who possesses any moral aptitude in a town full of villains. Macheath operates as a criminal in a world that is filled with criminals, but his portrayal leaves some question as to whether his crimes are indeed as sinful as those of the lowlifes that surround him. Macheath is often honest, considered, and likeable. This thwarts the expectations of both audience and other characters within the play, who have learned from experience that crime is filled with one-sided individuals.

This is clear very early on in the play, which opens with a justification by Mr. Peachum of his own criminal existence. The first Air consists of a condemnation of normal professions, portraying them as crimes in their own right. Peachum goes on to claim that crime is as honest a job as any other:

A Lawyer is an honest Employment, so is mine. Like me too he acts in a double Capacity, both against Rogues and for ’em; for ’tis but fitting that we should protect and encourage Cheats since we live by them. (I. i.)

Ironically, Peachum suggests that criminals exhibit precisely the kind of multifaceted, dual nature that the character of Macheath will come to represent an opposition to Peachum and his ilk. The opening of The Beggar’s Opera serves to illustrate the one-sided nature of most criminals.

Even in discussions with Polly Peachum about her choice to marry the highwayman Macheath, Mrs. Peachum’s only concern is profit: “Can you support the Expense of a Husband, Hussy, in Gaming, Drinking and Whoring? Have you Money enough to carry on the daily Quarrels of Man and Wife about who shall squander most? There are not many Husbands and Wives, who can bear the Charges of plaguing one another in a handsome way” (I., i.). It is clear, then, that the typical modus operandi of criminals in The Beggar’s Opera is profit-motivation at the expense of all else.

Macheath represents the only character who does not follow this pattern. He displays a reasoned skepticism about profit and the motives of others. It is clear from Macheath’s actions that he values honor and friendship over money. In scene two of act three, for example, Macheath goes so far as to give his own money to his men, with little regard for himself:

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I am sorry, Gentlemen, the Road was so barren of Money. When my Friends are in Difficulties, I am always glad that my Fortune can be serviceable to them. [Gives them Money.] You see, Gentlemen, I am not a mere Court Friend, who professes everything and will do nothing. (III. ii.)

This is without a doubt honorable behavior that no one would expect from the other criminals in the play. Indeed, in advising his friends about worthwhile robbery targets, Macheath suggests that they target the dishonorable: “Have an Eye upon the Money-Lenders. – A Rouleau, or two, would prove a pretty sort of an Expedition. I hate Extortion” (III. ii.). Although this parallels Mr. Peachum’s earlier comparison of honest professions to crime, here there is no irony. Although Macheath couches his advice in terms of profit—rouleaus would be more useful than bank notes—his true motive is revealed by his disavowal of extortion, a legal crime to which money-lenders are frequently given.

Nevertheless, Macheath is still a highwayman and a criminal, and his indulgence in vice cannot be overlooked. Unlike Mr. Peachum, who attempts to justify his profession, Macheath admits to those of his actions that he sees as corrupt: “The road indeed hath done me justice, but the gaming table hath been my ruin” (II. iv.). The most obvious example of Macheath’s antiheroic vice is his womanizing tendency. In separate scenes, he makes convincing declarations of love to both Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit, while at other times indicating that he has not the slightest interest in either of the women.

The most striking example of this behavior is in Macheath’s declaration to Lucy while he is jailed:

You see, Lucy; in the Account of Love you are in my Debt, and you must now be convinced, that I rather choose to die than be another’s. Make me, if possible, love thee more, and let me owe my Life to thee – If you refuse to assist me, Peachum and your Father will immediately put me beyond all means of Escape. (II. iii.)

Although convincing for Lucy, it is clear to the audience that this declaration is based solely upon the expediency of Macheath’s situation, and that if he has feelings for Lucy, this is not their honest expression. Here Macheath uses debt as a metaphor to express his love for Lucy, which is both comical and ironic. Although Macheath is an honorable character, honoring his debts is perhaps not his strongest area.

Although Macheath treats these women badly, for the audience his womanizing behavior cannot be entirely a black mark upon his character. The reason for this is that the women themselves are hardly reputable individuals. In the first scene of the play, Polly Peachum shows herself to be dim-witted, and the women throughout the play areas one-sided and conniving as the other outlaws. The audience’s sympathies, therefore, lie with Macheath, particularly when he expresses his frustration at the dilemma in air 52:

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Which way shall I turn me – How can I decide?
Wives, the Day of our Death, are as fond as a Bride.
One Wife is too much for most Husbands to hear,
But two at a time there’s no mortal can bear.
This way, and that way, and which way I will,
What would comfort the one, its other Wife would take ill. (III. iv.)

This sentiment is striking because, despite the lies Macheath has told to get himself into this situation, he allows himself to appear concerned with pleasing the women. Additionally, Macheath’s troubles with women are relatable to the audience, and further underscore the differences between Macheath and other criminals. Although Macheath is a notorious highwayman, mere relationship troubles have led to his execution.

Macheath’s readiness to die at the end indicates a shift in his presentation of himself but is ultimately continuous with his character. Throughout the play, as has been shown above, Macheath takes great pains to appear honorable in love, which is one area in which he is indisputably not an honorable man. This contrasts with the humility with which he approaches other aspects of his character, where is honorable. In the last scene, however, Macheath appears to abandon any attempt he had been making to appear worthy about the women in his life:

JAILOR. Four Women more, Captain, with a Child apiece! See, here they come. [Enter Women and Children.]

MACHEATH. What four Wives more! This is too much Here tell the Sheriff’s Officers I am ready. (III. v.)

Death appears to Macheath now as an easy way out of his troubles with women. This cowardly behavior might seem to break with the honor Macheath has shown in his other dealings. However, when considered in juxtaposition with the abovementioned womanizing tendency, it is clear that, in this realm, Macheath has never been an honest man. He has been an honest criminal, but not an honest lover.

In conclusion, John Gay uses the character of Macheath to illustrate the many facets of a hero. Macheath is not one-sided in his role as the protagonist of the play. He is both antiheroic and comic, honest where others aren’t and dishonest where perhaps a true hero would be. In his disreputable profession, he is honest, charming, and loyal. It is perhaps these characteristics that draw women to him and thus drive the action of the play. Where women are concerned, however, Macheath is an antihero in a different right.

References

Bareket, Donna, Anne Eisendrath, and Deborah Selig. “The Beggar’s Opera.” The Rise of the Novel. 2009. Web.

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Gay, John. The Beggar’s Opera. Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 1969

Piper, William B. “Similitude as Satire in The Beggar’s Opera.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3 (1988), pp. 334-351.

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