Vice Against Virtue

In The Beggar’s Opera, the idea of using others for one’s own personal and materialistic gain is a recurring theme. A person in Gay’s mock opera is only worth as much as someone else can get out of him. As one might expect, this concept carries over into marriage. Macheath and his supporting cast of thieves and prostitutes give the reader an entirely new perspective on the institution of matrimony. Men and women use marriage as a way of getting what they want from a person. For thieves and wenches, marrying for money, property, and other possessions is quite commonplace. The old, such as Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, see marriage as a way to get something, either material possessions or status. Macheath, on the other hand, uses love and marriage to lure women into his bed. Polly and Lucy, however, have more honorable feelings about marriage. They both fall in love with Macheath, and desire to be with him because they care greatly for him. They are not interested in material gain. Strangely enough, it is Polly and Lucy who are punished for their views, while Macheath and the Peachums receive no such retribution. Vice and virtue are flipped upside down in The Beggar’s Opera. The virtuous are punished, while the evil escape unscathed.

Throughout the story, the Peachums describe people in terms of how valuable they are or are not to a specific person. Early on in the play, Peachum has a discussion with his wife over the value of Captain Macheath. Upon hearing that Polly may be interested in marrying Captain Macheath, Peachum and his wife get into an argument over the prudence in Polly marrying the captain. The disagree, not on whether marrying Macheath is good or bad, but on what Polly should be trying to gain by marrying him. Peachum argues, "If the wench does not know her own profit, sure she knows her own pleasure better than to make herself a property" (2578). Here, Peachum is frustrated that his daughter may be marrying a man who is not worth very much money. He says that in marrying Macheath, Polly will "make herself a property" of the captain, rather than make herself his wife. In this day and age, the idea of becoming someone’s property is thought of as wrong, but in Peachum’s world, it can be a wise thing to do. Since Polly "does not know her own profit" in marrying Macheath, Peachum believes that the girl should know "her own pleasure better" than to marry the man. The choice of the word "pleasure" is important here. It indicates that Polly should know what delights her and satisfies her well enough to realize that marrying Macheath is a bad idea. The problem is, the girl does not know how much she will profit from becoming his wife. Why is this a problem? According to Peachum, financial and material gains are what satisfy Polly. If she does not gain a lot of either in marrying Macheath, then she will be unsatisfied in her marriage. Despite this, she still chooses to pursue Macheath.

Mrs. Peachum has a very similar view to that of her husband on the topic of marriage. She too believes that marriage is a means to an end. According to Mrs. Peachum, when a woman marries, she gains the value that her husband’s name carries with it. This is where she and her husband differ. She says, "A maid is like the golden oar, / Which hath guineas intrinsical in’t, / Whose worth is never known, before / It is tried and imprest in the Mint. / A wife’s like a guinea in gold, / Stamped with the name of her spouse" (2578-79). "Golden oar" is a raw material. It carries value with it, but this value does not become clear until it is "tried and imprest in the Mint." Just like with currency in our own time, the raw materials used to make money are valuable, but their true worth is not known until they are minted. The materials used to make quarters and dimes may be the same, but their value, depending on how they are stamped, is very different. A maid possesses "guineas intrinsical." The "guinea," a type of English coin, is used to describe the woman’s value. She has the potential for value within her, but until marriage, her true worth will not be known. A woman, upon marriage, is given her husband’s name. Gay uses the term "stamp" to describe the mark of a husband’s name. This stamp determines how much value and worth the man’s wife has. If he is a man of high status, then she will be of high value. However, a man of low social standing will, upon taking a bride, mark a woman at a low value. Mrs. Peachum believes that Polly should marry in order to achieve a higher placement in the social bracket of English society.

While the Peachums believe that marriage is a way for a woman to get money and status, Macheath feels that it is best used for sexual gain and conquest. He makes his feelings toward women abundantly clear. Macheath is clearly a womanizer. He is happiest when he has more than one woman to experience, comparing his desires to that of a man who loves money. He says, "…a man who loves money might as well be contended with one guinea, as I with one woman" (2589). Obviously, a man who loves money will not be happy with only one guinea, just as Macheath will not be satisfied with only one woman. It is interesting to note that with this statement, the captain claims that he finds the value of one woman comparable to that of one guinea, which is quite a small sum of money. Macheath places a minuscule value upon each of the women in his life.

To seduce these women, Macheath tells them meaningless things to place him in their favor. When describing his time spent with Polly, he says, "I chat with the girl, I kiss her, I say a thousand things to her…that mean nothing…" (2595). Macheath flirts with Polly, telling her things that he claims are meaningless. However, if he meant for nothing to come of the sweet-nothings that he told Polly, why did the girl get the impression that they are married? It is clear that Macheath charmed Polly into his arms. It is quite unlikely that Polly would misconstrue Macheath’s flirtations to the point that she felt that they were married.

Macheath’s views on marriage reinforce the claim that he uses charm to take advantage of woman. He asks, "Does not man in marriage itself promise a hundred things that he never means to perform?" (2594). One promise that a man makes to his wife in marriage is that of conjugal fidelity. By marrying Polly and Lucy, Macheath breaks his promise of faithfulness. His feelings are certainly not what the reader would call noble. A man who marries with no intention of maintaining the promise that he makes to his wife is not often seen as virtuous. Macheath uses the prospect of marriage, along with his charms, as a tool to ensnare women.

It seems as though Polly and Lucy are the only characters in the play who believe in marriage on the basis of love. Polly admits as much to her father, saying, "I did not marry him (as ‘tis the fashion) coolly and deliberately for honor and money. But, I love him" (2581). Polly’s feelings for Macheath are true. She did not marry him to get his money, or to achieve a higher level of status. She loves him. When Peachum asks Polly if she has married in hopes to one day become a widow, and receive rights to his estate, she reiterates, "But I love him, Sir: how then could I have thoughts of parting with him?" (2584). As her husband is about to be led to the gallows, she pleads to be allowed to hang with him. Her feelings for Macheath are strong enough to possess her to desire death above living without him.

Lucy, as well, exhibits signs of genuine love for Macheath. She says, in reference to her feelings for the captain, that, "One can’t help love; one can’t cure it" (2597). She can not ignore or fix her feelings for Macheath. No matter what she does, her love will remain the same. Lucy, just like Polly, mourns for her captain just before he is to be led to the gallows. She also expresses the desire to be hanged with him. Despite the terrible treatment that Macheath showed her, she still cares deeply for him.

Unfortunately for Polly and Lucy, their virtue does not lead either of them to a happy ending. As the play comes to a close, the Peachums, despite their wicked ideas about marriage, remain rich and powerful, just as they were when the play began. Macheath, the womanizer, is freed from the gallows, despite having a half dozen wives. These people are rewarded for their vices, while Lucy and Polly fall victim to their own virtue. Lucy’s punishment is obvious. In the end, Polly is Macheath’s bride of choice, leaving Lucy alone, the sufferer of unrequited love. Polly, on the other hand, does win the favor of Macheath. At first glance, it appears that she will live happily ever after. Gay, however, leaves that in question, with the closing lines of the play. They read, "But think of this maxim, and put off your sorrow, / The wretch of today, may be happy tomorrow" (2616). Polly, at first a wretch, is now happy, so the moral fits her story. However, what about Lucy? Today, she is the wretch, having been rejected by Macheath. Gay hints that tomorrow, the captain could return to her, and leave Polly as the new victim. While the Peachums and Macheath escape punishment for their detestable views toward marriage, both Lucy and Polly are left in a vicious cycle.

Mr. and Mrs. Peachum both believe that marriage brings with it material gain as well as status. Macheath believes that women are like money, and that the more you have, the better off you are. Polly and Lucy, however, believe in marrying for love. They ignore the idea of marrying for wealth, status, or the collection of lovers. Yet their ideals, considered more virtuous by normal standards, lead them to punishment, while Macheath and the Peachums are unpunished and, in Macheath’s case, even rewarded for their licentious views. Gay’s mock opera turns ordinary values upside down, leaving the evil victorious, and the virtuous wallowing in defeat.

 

Works Cited

Gay, John. "The Beggar’s Opera." The Longman Anthology of British Literature Vol 1C. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Inc., 1999.