Ethics in The Beggar’s Opera

One walks away from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera feeling almost dirty, having encountered some of the slimiest, sleaziest, most unethical characters ever to walk the streets inside London’s City Wall. From Captain Macheath, who has two wives and babies by half-a-dozen other women, to the various whores and thieves, who work hand in hand to steal from the rich and sell the goods for way more than they are worth, there are very few character in this mock opera who appear to understand what it means to be ethical. In The Beggar’s Opera, decisions are made on the basis of one’s self-interests, the apparent legal consequences, and who will come out looking heroic, not on the basis of any regard for ethics.

One man who epitomizes what it means to be unethical is Captain Macheath, who angers everyone in the town when it is learned that he proposed marriage to one woman while newly married to another. It is not some great love for these women that drives Macheath to make such an unethical choice, but a great love for women in general, and his need to be satisfied by them. "I love the sex. And a man who loves money might as well be contended with one guinea, as I with one woman" (Act 2, Scene 3). Through this explanation, Macheath shrugs off any responsibility for his actions, blaming them on a character flaw akin to greed, something he has no control over. Instead of fighting this "character flaw" to better himself as a person, Macheath gives into it, because being with many women pleases him, never mind how his actions make the women feel. Although Macheath claims to "love the sex," his actions directly contradict that idea. He objectifies women, comparing them to a guinea, looking upon them as simple objects that he can use to build himself up. When it comes to women, at least, Macheath has never had an ethical thought. He makes decisions based on what he alone wants, forgetting about the feelings of others.

Another man to whom the feelings of others are of no consequence is Peachum, a lawyer and the leader of a band of thieves. Peachum has organized a system in which his men steal from the wealthy, then sell those same wealthy back their goods for a very inflated price. If one of his men steps out of line, Peachum rats him out and sends him to the gallows. When Peachum discovers his daughter’s marriage to Captain Macheath, he decides that the captain must die, not because his daughter is being used , but because he fears if he doesn’t do anything Macheath will murder him first. However, Peachum faces a conflict: Macheath is one of his best "employees," and he feels somewhat remorseful about what he has to do because of what it will mean for his business. "…it grieves one’s heart to take off a great man. When I consider his personal bravery, his fine stratagem, how much we have already got by him, and how much more we may get, methinks I can’t find it in my heart to have a hand in his death" (Act 1, Scene 11). It’s not his daughter’s love for this man, or the ethical problems associated with murder, or even human decency that makes Peachum think twice about killing this man. It is Macheath’s value as an employee, what he means to Peachum’s business that gives the older man pause.

To save himself the emotional conflict of having to "off" one of his best employees, Peachum tries to convince his daughter to do the dirty deed, despite the fact that she is in love with Macheath and couldn’t bare to have the guilt of being the one responsible for his murder. Polly is the one facing an ethical conflict, and her father tries to "tweak" the ethics for her, so murdering her husband doesn’t seem so wrong.

What hath murder do in the affair? Since the thing sooner or later must happen, I dare say, the Captain himself would like that we should get the reward for his death sooner than a stranger. Why, Polly, the Captain knows, that as ‘tis his employment to rob, so ‘tis ours to take robbers; every man in his business (Act 1, Scene 10).

Peachum attempts to show Polly that Macheath’s murder is inevitable, there is nothing she can do to keep if from happening. This being the case, Polly might as well reap the benefits of widowhood, specifically the monetary benefits. As for any anger Macheath may have for Polly if she is the one to spearhead his death, Peachum assures her that Macheath is fully aware of how the world works and that in his chosen profession, his murder is inevitable. In this way, Macheath’s murder is portrayed as a very ethical thing.

The prison system Gay describes is, like practically everything else in this town, incredibly unethical. Bribery runs rampant, and buying one’s freedom is almost expected. That’s not to say it always works, but people are expected to at least try. The first stop when being booked into the prison is the jailer, where a prisoner is required to pay the customary bribe. But, ever accommodating to those at different income levels, the amount of the bribe varies. "We have them of all prices, from one guinea to ten, and ‘tis fitting every gentleman should please himself" (Act 2, Scene 7). Though the act of bribery is unethical, what goes on in the jail isn’t like normal bribery. It is something that has been going on for so long, it has worked it’s way into the system as just something that happens when one gets sent to jail. Bribery in this sense has lost it’s shock value as something unethical and wrong and has been accepted by society as a functioning part of the legal system.

Though Gay’s audience can see Captain Macheath for the unethical, womanizing, self-centered man he is, to Gay’s other characters the captain is a charmer with all the makings o a hero. Macheath has money and he shows it, dressing and carrying himself as a rich man would. Macheath is very popular with the ladies, despite the fact that he routinely keeps more than one waiting in the wings for him. Macheath is aware of his potential heroism, and plays it up, making decisions that serve to emphasis Captain Macheath, The Hero. In the local tavern with a bunch of other townsmen, Macheath shows himself off "in a fine tarnished coat" (Act 3, Scene 4), and begins throwing his money around to help those of lesser means than himself. "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" (Act 3, Scene 4). Alone, this statement would seem to portray a generous, giving man, who derives great joy from helping others. But, coupled with what Gay’s audience knows about Macheath’s character from his previous actions—marrying two women at the same time, cavorting with prostitutes, lying to save himself—this act seems very shallow and self-serving; a move designed to make people say, "Oh yeah, that Macheath was a really generous guy."

Ethics, or the absence of ethics, plays a big role in Gay’s mock opera. His characters really come to life by what the don’t have. Through the complete lack of ethics and ethical decision making, Gay’s characters make choices most people would never even consider, and we get to see what happens when one just does what he wants all the time without pausing for a moment to think about how other people are effected. Unfortunately, life does not imitate art, and in the real world all would probably not end happily for a man like Captain Macheath.