Vice or Virtue?: Ethics in The Beggar’s Opera

No matter where one goes on this planet, the concept of ethics is fundamentally consistent. Theft, murder, deceit, and adultery violate this universal code of ethics; honesty, heroism, and fidelity are supported by it. However, there also seems to be a common streak of morbid curiosity uniting us all. Individuals who have notably violated our code of ethics quickly gain fame and notoriety; examples include Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Jack the Ripper, and even Robin Hood. All of these figures have gained legendary status through their criminal and often violent actions. As well as these real-life figures, fictional criminals are also wildly popular: television shows such as The Practice and Homicide: Life on the Street, movies such as Primal Fear and Assassins, and novels by thrill-mongers John Grisham and Tom Clancy litter current pop culture, while other features such as the recent Scary Movie parody our morbid mentality. Two centuries ago, human nature was the same: London criminals Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard were the talk of the town, and Sheppard had even become a working-class hero. Morbid fascination with any break from the universally accepted code of ethics was just as rampant then as now, and author John Gay auspiciously capitalized on this fixation. He knew what the people wanted, and deplored their obsession with the crime-ridden underworld. In his wildly popular Beggar's Opera, Gay successfully ridicules London society’s affinity for all things immoral by transforming vice into virtue and virtue into vice, primarily motivated by monetary rewards, and thereby turning the standard notion of ethics on its head.

The reversals of vice and virtue in Gay’s opera are revealed significantly beginning in Act I, Scene 3. Peachum, the ringleader of the London underground (a character based on the criminal Jonathan Wild), and his wife have found out that their daughter, Polly, is in love with one of Peachum’s outlaws. The Peachums’ reaction is surprising: instead of being happy that their daughter is in love and intends to be married, they are outraged. According to their individualized notion of ethics, marriage is the worst crime their daughter could commit. Peachum informs her, "You know, Polly, I am not against your toying and trifling with a customer in the way of business, or to get out a secret, or so. But if I find out that you have played the fool and are married, you jade you, I’ll cut your throat, hussy" (Gay 2580). His behavior toward his daughter is exactly the opposite of what we would expect: where most parents would conform to the universal code of ethics and condemn promiscuity, Peachum is actually encouraging it and deploring Polly’s intended faithfulness to her husband! The reason for the Peachums’ objections to Polly’s marriage is soon revealed: they feel that she has wasted herself on a man with no money, and are worried that her husband will arrange for their own deaths in order to get his greedy hands on their fortune (Gay 2581). Therefore, they feel that Polly should simply carry on an affair with the man in order to extort money and gifts from him, thereby extracting a profit from the relationship (2581). This reversal of convention comes as a shock to the opera’s audience, who are accustomed to fidelity, rather than promiscuity, being an honorable trait.

The solution that Peachum proposes for Polly’s situation further advances the transformation of vice into virtue. He decides that if Polly must insist on being married, she must get some sort of profit out of it, so he proposes that she "have him peached" (turn him in to the authorities) and thereby be made "a rich widow" (Gay 2584). When Polly protests, Mrs. Peachum tells her, "Hang your husband, and be dutiful" (Gay 2585). This command brings another shock to the audience’s sense of right and wrong: the daughter’s duty is to assist in the death of her husband? This idea contradicts everything we have ever been taught concerning fidelity and honor. Yet the Peachums carry no scruples against such crimes as murder, and indeed consider it a virtue to sacrifice everything, including their daughter’s happiness and another human life, in order to get what they want.

Another example of the reversal of ethics in the opera can be found in Act II, Scene 4, when Macheath meets with the ladies of the underworld. As they sit and share a companionable drink, they boast of their various exploits in thievery as proudly as anyone else might boast of completing a successful business deal or earning a promotion in her line of work (Gay 2591-92) – which, in a sense, these women are doing. They are quick to compliment each other on their accomplishments in the field of robbery. For example, when Mrs. Vixen comments on Molly Brazen’s success in stealing some cloth from a linen-draper, Molly downplays her accomplishment and compliments Mrs. Vixen on her own exploits, declaring, "To cheat a man is nothing; but the woman must have fine parts indeed who cheats a woman!" (Gay 2591). According to societal standards, thievery is an action of which one should be ashamed, not proud, and those who hear of the crime should be shocked to hear of the transgression. Again, however, Gay depicts the situation as exactly the opposite – robbery is a virtue, an accomplishment to be both flaunted and admired, rather than a vice that should be hidden and deplored. These ladies also flaunt their promiscuity, another trait that society’s general code of ethics considers shameful. In this group, however, it is a way of life. They trade stories of various men with whom they have had affairs purely for the money that could be extorted out of their lovers. Mrs. Vixen even boasts of having "sent at least two or three dozen of them . . . to the plantations" (Gay 2592) to obtain the reward money offered for turning in criminals to the London authorities. These actions – carrying on a relationship solely for the sake of the money that can be gained – constitute nothing but prostitution, nearly the worst sin a woman can commit according to the universal notion of ethical behavior. However, in Gay’s world of reversed morals, this practice is a perfectly acceptable, even honorable, method of making a living. Even when Jenny Diver and Suky Tawdry betray their friend Macheath to Peachum for the reward money, their actions are not deplored but supported by the other women; indeed, they ask for a share of the money as a reward for assisting the two traitors. They even look upon Jenny as a heroine for her actions, behaving with utter deference toward her when she refuses to share Peachum’s reward with them.

Gay’s inverted concept of morality is demonstrated again in Act III, Scene 4, when Macheath and Matt of the Mint are discussing their prospects for the imminent evening of highway robbery. When Matt suggests a possible victim, Macheath is astonished and replies, "Sure you will not think of meddling with him! He’s a good honest kind of a fellow, and one of us" (Gay 2605). To the audience, this seems to be a contradiction: Macheath proclaims him a "good honest fellow," but how can he be honest if he is one of the tribe of outlaws? Macheath’s evaluation is based on the reversed code of ethics by which these characters live: thieving is a virtuous career, and honesty simply equals not betraying others to the London legal system.

Mrs. Diana Trapes’s speech in Act III, Scene 6 also exhibits a curious notion of ethics. She bemoans the fact that her "ladies" borrow items from her without returning them promptly, but takes their prostitution as a matter of course (Gay 2607). While the audience, judging by the universal code of ethics, would see prostitution as the far greater crime, Mrs. Trapes obviously disagrees. Her attitude, which is shared by the other characters, is that everyone must make a living somehow, and prostitution is as honorable a method as any. However, late return of borrowed items is inexcusable.

These examples from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera outline a criminal world wherein standard, familiar ideas of ethics and morality are turned topsy-turvy. Gay’s characters are primarily driven by money, and think nothing of stooping to such disgraceful practices as deceit, robbery, prostitution, and even murder in order to obtain what they desire. In fact, in their world, such actions are well within the borders of morality. Such breaks with the standard code of ethics fascinated London audiences, who enjoyed the opera immensely without realizing that Gay was actually ridiculing them for indulging such morbid curiosity. Gay’s satire works through effectively transfiguring vice into virtue, and virtue into vice.