Paper 1: The Nature of Ethics in The Beggar’s Opera

 In The Beggar’s Opera, John Gay presents a world in which, "you should never do anything but upon the foot of interest" (2603). Within this system, the nature of ethics holds that one’s duty, above all else, is to profit so that what is virtuous is determined by what is profitable. This perversion of ethics produces a kind of human nature which is not natural, in the sense that it violates the inherent tendencies of individuals to seek intimacy and practice altruism: instead, both human beings and human bonds are reduced to mechanisms whereby individuals increase their power. Neither "friendship," "love," nor "heroism" are possible nor truly present but instead are merely guises behind which individuals support their own self-interests. Not surprisingly, when individuals breach this system by behaving selflessly, they suffer a loss of agency. Therefore, because privilege is only granted to characters who forfeit the right to act beyond their own self-interests, theirs is a freedom which is not in fact "free."

As Peachum asserts, profit is a matter of "necessity" (2585). One "must comply with the customs of the world, and make gratitude give way to interest"(2585) if he is to retain his "honor" (2597). In order to gain, "Each neighbor abuses his brother" (2575). Women use love to trick men out of money (2575). In turn, men use women to teach themselves "the wheedling arts" (2575) of trickery and trade. As is the case "Through all the employments of life" (2575), Peachum’s "honest employment" is dependent upon his "double capacity" (2575) to work both for and against his clients; he "protect[s] and encourage[s] cheats" until he "can get nothing more" (2576), at which point he betrays them to Tyburn tree. Despite its deceptiveness, this "double capacity" (2575) is a form of duty which grants virtue. For Peachum, Macheath’s execution is not murder since "every man in his business"(2584) must behave profitably. Rather, it is a kind of obligation which he explains, by saying, "as ‘tis his employment to rob, so ‘tis ours to take robbers" (2584). Thus it is with a clear conscience that Peachum declares, "there is not malice in the case" (2584). Instead, Peachum justifies the action, implying that to do otherwise would be dishonorable to Macheath who "would like that [Polly] should get the reward for his death sooner than a stranger" (2596).

Due to the centrality of profit, human relationships are transformed into mechanisms whereby individuals seek to prosper or gain. The familial bond shared between Polly and the Peachums is merely an instrument as opposed to an indication of loyalty or love. This bond places Polly in a position of subordination to her parents who regard it "[her] duty…to hang [Macheath]" (2584). The only way Polly can fulfill this duty, and guard herself "against…ruin"(2578) is to transform her virtues—most notably, her beauty and chastity—into commodities which, to her parents, are useful only for their acquire wealth. As Peachum asserts, "My daughter to me should be, like a court lady to a minister of state, a key to the whole gang" (2578). In this comparison Polly is an object both literally as well as figuratively: she is simultaneously a "court lady," or, prostitute—selling herself for money—as well as a "key"—an instrument or device, used by someone else, to unlock or gain entrance to some person or thing. Thus Polly is no more than a means or vehicle through which others profit; her familial bonds are no more than familial contracts which do not extend beyond the boundaries of self-interest.

As the text progresses, objects are not merely equated with individuals but come to replace them. Having been forsaken by friend and foe, Macheath proclaims that "Not one so sure can bring relief, As this best friend, a brimmer" (2613). In this context, alcohol becomes capable of offering not only relief but friendship. In the same way, Mrs. Peachum maintains that "a maid is like the golden oar" who has yet to be "tried and imprest" (2578) whereas "A wife’s like a guinea in gold" whose worth has diminished because it has been "stamped with the name of her spouse" (2579). This comparison of wife and maid to gold suggests that once human beings are reduced to mere commodities, their individual value ceases to take precedence over their monetary potentiality: they in fact become the things—"golden oar" and "guinea" (2578)—they are seeking to acquire.

Just as people are valued only as objects, marriage is fruitful only as a tool of profit. In the "common views of a gentlewoman" (2584), the goal of marriage is "jointure, and being a widow" (2584). From a male perspective, Peachum suggests that Macheath’s motive is the same: "he believes [Polly] a fortune"(2580). The register of finance is pervasive throughout this passage in terms such as "jointure," "reward," and "estate," affirming the preeminence of profit in the alliance of marriage. One does not marry unless it is one’s aim to collect. Peachum states the matter more directly when he asserts that "Parting…is the whole scheme and intention of marriage articles"(2584). Thus Polly’s "match" may only be redeemed if it is "turn[ed] to [their] advantage"(2583). This is not to say that sexual attraction or desire must be stifled. On the contrary, Peachum is not opposed to Polly "toying and trifling" as long as it is "in the way of business, or to get out a secret" (2580); sex, too, is a means to which profit is the end. Above all, the "suits of love…are won by pay" (2576); here Gay uses the register of finance in words such as suits and pay to emphasize the centrality of profit in the realm of romance: instead of love affairs, there are love suits.

Because it is not motivated by self-interest, genuine love is scorned as weakness or "vice." Mrs. Peachum expresses her concern for Polly falling victim to such venality, saying, "If Polly should be in love, how should we help her, or how can she help herself?" (2578). To love is to place oneself in a position of helplessness and vulnerability. Love "is a misfortune" (2603) or disease which not only renders its victims powerless, but makes them "their own bubbles" (2603), or cheats. Thus in proclaiming, "I did not marry [Macheath]…for honor and money. But, I love him"(2581), her parents are horrified, recognizing that Polly has made herself victim not only to Macheath, but to herself. By laying herself open to such fragility, Polly becomes "a shame to [her] very sex"(2584); she forfeits her ability to profit and instead becomes a willing "fool" (2603).

By demonstrating genuine love, capable of self-sacrifice, Polly subordinates her self-interests to Macheath’s and so diminishes her freedom. Although Polly anticipates the wretchedness she will experience once Macheath is gone, she nevertheless chooses to "inform him of [her parent’s] design, and aid him in his escape" (2585). Ironically, in doing so, Polly consents to "part" (2586) with Macheath, though for reasons not her own. Despite her "pain" and "bleeding heart" (2587) Polly insists, "Fly hence, and let me leave thee" (2587). Moreover, even when she realizes she has been betrayed—"I’m bubbled" (2612)—her selfless love for Macheath neither shrinks nor subsides. Instead, she vows more earnestly, "No force shall tear thy dear wife from thee now" (2599), claiming that "No power on earth can e’er divide / The knot that sacred love hath tied" (2601). Thus by demonstrating genuinely ethical behavior (self-sacrifice, compassion, and love) in a society which hails profit as its greatest good, Polly renounces her own freedom, and becomes a social alien. Essentially, she is an object behaving as a human being.

Antithetically, Jenny Diver represents Polly’s "heroic" counterpart although her heroism, and her freedom, are merely illusive. Unlike Polly, Jenny is stoic and reserved. Her actions are wholly self-interested: "she can pick [a] pocket as coolly, as if money were her only pleasure" (2591). She shows "fondness" and "warmth" only when it is "convenient" (2591) or profitable. Whereas Polly’s behavior towards Macheath is entirely self-sacrificing—she not only "suffers" on his behalf but vows to "stay with [him] ‘til death"(2599)—Jenny’s demonstrates "a command of the passions uncommon in a woman" (2591) by choosing "only go to the tavern with a man…in the view of business" (2591). But although Jenny is "free" from the obligations of genuine love, she is slave to the laws of profit and self-interest. As a prostitute, she is herself a commodity, which is a form of slavery to which Polly, as a wife, is also subject. Like any "used" good, once it "is bought, or is sold" (2579) both positions suffer a decrease in value; they become "current in every house, " (2579), property of husband or client. Although Jenny’s ultimate "heroism" is grounded in her successful ruin of Macheath, she cannot do so before becoming Peachum’s willing pawn, his "decoy duck" (2593), which is an object used as a means to trap, mislead, or lure its victims. Thus her "heroism" is not heroic but is rather an item which may be purchased or employed.

Like Jenny’s "heroism," the "friendship" shared among all other characters is merely illusory, existing only as long as their self-interests remain unthreatened. Once it is revealed that Peachum made "a private bargain with [Jenny] and Suky Tawdry for betraying the Captain" (2593) their "friendship" breaks down. Immediately, each woman’s motives are clear: Trull insists, "that is not fair" (2593); Coaxer protests that Peachum "might have trusted [her] as well as Jenny" (2593) while Slammekin claims she deserves credit from Peachum for "set[ing] down…three men of his hanging" (2593). The same false "friendship" exists between the "gamesters," Peachum and Lockit, who are "united in friendship…And join to promote one another’s deceit" (2604) until they fail to acquire customers at which point "they each other entrap" (2604). In this view, "friendship" is contingent upon one’s ability to prosper. Lockit admits, "Peachum is my companion, my friend" yet he vows to "make use of the privilege of friendship to make him a return" (2603). Their "friendship" survives until Macheath places them in competition with one another, at which point it reaches an impasse. Thus mutual interest is the true hinge which joints Lockit and Peachum together: "friendship" is merely the term used to mask their true motives. Similarly, although Macheath and his gang distinguish themselves from "the rest of mankind" (2588) as individuals who are "sound men, and true" (2588), their "friendship" nevertheless ends in surrender to self-interest. Despite Ned’s boast, "Who is there here that would not die for his friend?"(2588), Macheath is ultimately betrayed by Jemmy, causing him to conclude, "Tis a plain proof that the world is all alike, and that even our gang can no more trust one another than other people" (2614).

Ultimately, because it is fully embodied by the capitalist values of society, "heroism" is distorted both to uphold and applaud its enemies: gamesters, alcoholics, prostitutes, and scoundrels. Macheath is the epitome of this portrait. After being confronted by "four wives…with a child a-piece" (2615), he welcomes death as the absence of responsibility. He uses wine not only to diminish his fear but also to strengthen his valor, proclaiming that "A man can die / Much bolder with brandy" (2613). Ironically, although he is unexpectedly pardoned, and lauded as a hero, his "heroism" is represented by an extreme example of commodification: "the Turk, with his doxies around" (2616). Superficially, it would seem that, surrounded by beauties, he has finally attained the freedom for which he has been longing. Yet this "liberty" garners with it an even more intense form of slavery as "From all sides their glances his passion confound" (2616), suggesting that he is in a state of bewilderment or confusion. As a result, "his inconstancy burns," placing him in a position wherein "the different beauties subdue him by turns" (2616). The words "inconstancy" and "subdue" undermine Macheath’s supposed "freedom," implying instead that his fickle heart is in a state of subjugation or vanquishment. Ironically, by choosing none, he becomes slave to all: his desire is perpetually thwarted, his longing unquenched. In a world such as this, where "friendship" and "love" are founded on self-interest and self-gratification, the individual is ultimately his own victim. Macheath’s happiness, like his "heroism," is nothing more than illusion feeding fancy.