When John Gays The Beggars Opera first opened in 1728, British audiences and critics rejoiced at the political satire and ridicule for Italian opera that the play offered. However, the question that the play often raises for modern audiences regards a more Socratic concern of how to live ones life virtuously. Due to the avarice of the characters, it may seem that virtue is not a theme in the play, but absence of virtue in the characters speaks more then a presence of virtue ever could. Throughout the course of the play, it becomes evident that through the vice of individual characters and the relationships between these individuals, Gay suggests that society as a whole can never be virtuous and the people that make up that society deal with this corruption in different ways.
In the portrayal of London that the Beggars Opera gives, vice often exists in place of virtue without question, and this replacement can be seen on many levels. Gay opens his first act by portraying how vice plays a vital role in the success and survival of every person in London. Peachum begins, "Through all the employments of life, each neighbor abuses his brother; Whore and rogue they call husband and wife: All professions be-rogue one another," (Longman, 2575). The fact that this song opens the play is significant because it asks the audience to keep this statement in mind though out the rest of the play. It is, in a sense, a sort of instruction as to how to regard the actions that will soon unfold. Gay has now already let us know that the morals the play carries are to be applied to every walk of life, not just the thieves and criminals. The second half of the air is also a sort of instruction from Gay as Peachum sings "The priest calls the lawyer a cheat, The lawyer be-knaves the divine; And the statesmen, because hes so great, Thinks his trade as honest as mine," (Longman, 2575). Here a continuation of the first instruction can be seen, but it goes deeper by showing how vice adds structure to every class in London. Just as MacHeath, Peachum, and Lockit all rely on one another in a sort of triangle to succeed and survive, the priest, the lawyer, and the statesman all rely on one another for the same purposes. Additionally, the workings of each triangle are based on dishonesty and vice. The fact that a priest, lawyer and statesman are used is important because they are the most powerful and supposedly righteous people in England, a country where church and state exist as one entity. It is therefor implied that such triangular dependence on vice exists on every societal level, from the people who make the laws and the people who break them.
Once Gay has established the general group structure of the cast, he begins to break down how vice works in the individual. Each character has at least one principle vice, but those who have more hint at the ethical beliefs that Gay ultimately offers. MacHeaths principle vice is of course thievery, which he embellishes in mainly to put food on his table. However, Gay uses MacHeaths own views on his other vices to portray the thief as a much more ethically dynamic character. One such vice is his manipulation of Lucy and Polly to embellish in pleasures of the flesh. MacHeath reasons, "What a fool is a fond wench! Polly is most confoundedly bit. I love the sex. And a man who loves money might as well be contented with one guinea, as I with one woman. [ ] I must have women," (Longman, 2589-90). Soon after this statement, the room is filled with women who are there only to help capture the thief. Their purpose there is significant because it shows how his desire for women is wrong. He tells Polly he loves her, leaves and meets a group of prostitutes, and is captured because his dependence on sex. Once in the company of these women, they discuss another one of his vices of choice: gambling. However, he is upset at his recent losses: "The road, indeed, hath done me justice, but the gaming table hath been my ruin," (Longman, 2592). Although MacHeath is not aware of the ethics hidden here, Gay represents him in this light to show how vice can ruin a man as well as benefit him. The use of the word justice here is also significant because it is equated with success, as if success in wealth makes a person righteous. (However, in Gays England wealth could buy righteousness, a fact that Gay chastises throughout the play.) Gay uses Jennys reply to MacHeaths statement to bring up these ethics that he did not recognize. She believes that "A man of courage should never put anything to the risk, but his life. These [MacHeaths pistols] are the tools of a man of honor. Cards and dice are only fit for cowardly cheats, who prey upon their friends," (Longman, 2592). Gay had Jenny point out this fact because it is a lesson that MacHeath has not yet learned, but will ultimately have to. The quote is also heavily ironic because Jenny takes up MacHeaths pistols so that Peachum can apprehend him. However, by portraying Jenny and the other prostitutes as the villains, MacHeaths role as the plays heroic character, despite his many vices, is suggested.
MacHeaths role as the heroic protagonist becomes critical after his capture because he begins to question his own actions that have gotten him into trouble. After Jenny Diver and the others tricked him, MacHeath decides that "Man may escape from rope and gun; Nay, some have outlived that doctors pill: Who takes a woman must be undone, That basilisk is sure to kill," (Longman, 2594). Soon after MacHeath comes to this conclusion, though, he ceases questioning himself and concentrates on escaping. However, in order to do so, he must resort back to his manipulation of womankind. He convinces Lucy he loves her, and she in turn steals her fathers keys. At this point it becomes clear that Gay allowed MacHeath to be captured to establish him as the heroic figure. In addition, he allowed him to escape to show that one mans virtue cannot overcome the vice of an entire society, and in order to be successful in that society, the individual must also be resort to deception. Gay uses this lesson as a means to examine how individuals can come together both in vice and in virtue, but not always lawfully.
In Act 3, Gay focuses on the friendships between Peachum and Lockit, and between MacHeath and his gang. Each group has its own view on friendship, each of which speaks volumes about their values and creates the final distinction between the two opposing parties. Lockit believes that "Of all animals of prey, man is the only sociable one. Every one of us preys upon his neighbor, and yet we herd together. Peachum is my companion, my friend," (Longman, 2603). To he and Peachum, friendships are merely tools to accomplish ones own goals. This outlook is deficient because it tries to equate competition with cooperation. In Lockit and Peachums world, there can be no trust or sharing of mutual goals. It is a world devoid of any warmth in companionship or safety from others. They know no other way to perceive the ethical world. MacHeath, on the other hand, sees friendships in another light. He believes that "When my friends are in difficulties, I am always glad that my fortune can be serviceable to them. [Gives them money.] You see, gentleman, I am not a mere Court friend, who professes everything and will do nothing," (Longman, 2604). MacHeath considers his sense of honor and honsety greater than most aristocrats, and is aware of Lockit and Peachums outlook. He is therefor able to make a rational argument as to why his human relationships are superior. His world is filled with friends whom he can trust and count on, and he never has to be lonely or scared because they will always be there to support him. MacHeath and his comrades "have still honor enough to break through the corruptions of the world," (Longman, 2605). However, MacHeath and his gang can only be considered superior to Peachum and Lockit in this respect. Both parties still rely solely on crime to achieve their ends. After Gay has established these outlooks on friendship in Act 3, scenes 2-6, MacHeath is again captured.
Gays timing for the capture is significant because it immediately follows a scene where MacHeath was built up as a heroic figure. Once in prison, his heroism is slowly broken down, but he still has his hope in the form of his friends. When they visit him at Newgate he tells them "Peachum and Lockit, you know, are infamous scoundrels. Their lives are as much in your power, as yours are in theirs. Remember your dying friend. Tis my last request. Bring those villains to the gallows before you, and I am satisfied." This statement is especially significant because it again acknowledges the dependence that the three groups have on each other. It places all three on the same playing field, but does not suggest that the thieves will immediately kill Lockit and Peachum. MacHeaths only instruction was to bring them down before the thieves are hung themselves. He understands that they need Lockit and Peachum to make a living, but if they are going to be hung, they would be better off if they could kill Lockit and Peachum and try to make money through other connections. MacHeaths heroic qualities are fully deconstructed by the end of the play, as he wails "See, my courage is out. [Turns up empty bottle.]" (Longman, 2615). At the point when the Beggar and the Player come out, the whole cast has been put on the same corrupt criminal level. However, they appear no better or worse than the aristocrats they were compared to through out the course of the play. The Beggar reveals Gays portrayal of the criminal cast as a symbol for all classes, with strong criminal elements, in his final remark final remark of "Had the play remained, as I first intended, it would have carried a most excellent moral. Twould have shown that the lower sort of people have their vices in a degree as well as the rich, and that they are punished for them," (Longman, 2616). The play does not end, though, as the Beggar wants. Rather, it ends happily "to comply with the taste of the town," (Longman, 2615). To modern audiences, this ending can be interpreted in a more dualistic light.
With the Beggars ending, this moral would be accomplished, but it would leave the audience in a very dismal mood. By using the happy ending of the Players, while still suggesting the Beggars ending, Gay was able to please his audiences and still offer his moral lesson. However, there is still a greater meaning to the Players ending. It shows that although society may depend of crime and vice, through unity and trust, people can find safe comfort from the danger that corruption breeds around them. This interpretation is also interesting because it creates duality between the hope and despair of the two different endings, which parallel the difference in views of life between MacHeath and his antagonists, Lockit and Peachum. Through this interpretation of the play, it becomes apparent that Gay saw corruption in all walks of life, and only a good hearted person with courage, honor and companionship can truly be happy and secure in such a corrupt environment.