The Beggar’s Opera
Satire, an element used throughout the eighteenth century, was very popular in literary works. Generally, satire is used by the author to poke fun or criticize the faults of the government, a certain social class, or a certain person or group of people. In John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, the text is layered with many different themes, but one theme Gay appears to be frustrated with is the morality of high society and uses satire to reveal the dysfunction of marriage in high society. Gay uses his opera to show society, through a satirical lens, his frustrations by exploiting the shallow views and expectations of love and lust in his present day.
In the beginning of the play, we learn Polly is married to Macheath, and appears to be very much in love. Immediately we see her parents are outraged when they learn that she has married. The Peachums outrage highlights the idea of marriage in the eighteenth century. Although Gay is making fun of the upper class and their views of marriage, in a satirical way he uses the Peachums in a hierarchical structure to represent the upper class of the underworld. Using the Peachums as the upper class in this context not only mocks the structure of classes, but it also points out the absurdity of the shallow views on marriage, regardless of class.
The first reason the Peachums are upset is because Polly married Macheath without their knowing. Traditionally, the parents choose who their daughter will marry, and in the eighteenth century the decision of who she will marry is based on the socio-economical advantage it will give the family. Peachum shows his concern when he says, “But if I find out that you have play'd the fool and are married, you Jade you, I'll cut your throat, hussy.” (54) Gay makes it clear that it means a lot to him that he has some say in the man that she marries, and this was likely the way most fathers felt about their daughters.
Cited: Gay, John. The Beggar’s Opera. London: Penguin, 1986.
Hogarth, William. Marriage A-la-Mode. 1743. The National Gallery, London. The National Gallery. Web. 4 Mar. 2012.
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