Cheating: The Vice and Virtue of The Beggar’s Opera

According to his contemporary, Jonathon Swift, John Gay constructed two worlds in his mock performance, The Beggar’s Opera. The scenes of contemporary life from one world are intricately represented in the grand style of heroes from another. In The Beggar’s Opera, this technique is used to deride, and in subtle ways get to the truth about England’s mercantilist economic system. In fact, one of the characters, Peachum, makes reference to this when he says, "Then, indeed, we must comply with the customs of the world, and make gratitude give way to interest" (2585). In context with the people for whom this play was written, mercantilism is "the custom of the world." Moreover, for the characters of the play, gratitude (and everything else) gives way to interest, and cheating becomes the religion. The Beggar’s Opera portrays a mercantilist system that fosters a society in which men of all classes are reduced to equals interdependent upon one another by a common vice, cheating. Yet, by not making the men of higher status accountable to the law, the mercantilist system rewards them at the expense of the lower class, thus making cheating their virtue.

The mercantilist economy presented in the play is constructed in a way that necessitates that men of all professions cheat one another while simultaneously making themselves interdependent upon those that they cheat. One of ways in which The Beggar’s Opera is successful as a mock is the length at which it perverts the vice of "cheating" in the fictional society presented on the stage. Peachum, who by trade cheats the same thieves whose stolen goods he profits from, introduces the audience to the absurdities of this society when he sings, "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" (2575). In these lines, Peachum reveals that cheating is second nature to the people of the mercantilist society being described, and thus a part of all professions. Peachum goes on to elaborate on this upside-down logic by claiming that, "’tis but fitting we should protect and encourage cheats, since we live by them" (2575). For Peachum, his employment depends on valuables his cheats pick up on the road, as well as the reward he gets for turning them in. Without cheats, Peachum would have no profession. Later in the play, the protagonist, Macheath, one of Peachum’s acclaimed "gentlemen of the road," admits his dependence upon Peachum, when he says, "Business cannot go on without him. He is a man who knows the world, and is a necessary agent to us" (2589). Thus, Macheath, knowing the fowl intentions of Peachum, still admits that his occupation and livelihood depend on Peachum. The relationship appears to operate in the reverse, however, and even when Macheath is being detained before his execution he reminds his comrades (of Peachum and associate Lockit) that, "Their lives are as much in your power, as yours are in theirs" (2614). Thus, it is clear that the mercantilist economy perpetuates cheating among men, the same vice which causes the essential interdependence upon those who are being cheated.

Not only does the play depict the interdependence caused by a society driven by cheating, but it suggests this vice to be the common ground among the divergent classes. In other words, the vice that unites all men in the mercantilist system essentially levels the playing field in the society in such a way that all men are simply cheats. Peachum describes how the nature of swindling surpasses all trades as he sings, "The priest calls the lawyer a cheat, / The lawyer be-knaves the divine; / And the statesman, because he’s so great, / Thinks his trade as honest as mine" (2575). In this song Peachum also reveals his assumption that he holds his trade to be honest. In the next line, however, Peachum goes on to say, "A lawyer is an honest employment, so is mine" (2575). Having just proclaimed a lawyer to be a cheat who "be-knaves the divine," it becomes evident not only that Peachum somehow reconciles the cheating within professions to the point at which he still considers them honest, but also that he is most capable of doing this to his own trade, thinking it more virtuous than others. Throughout the course of the play however, Peachum double crosses Macheath to benefit from his execution, and clearly falls short of any definition of the word "honest." Likewise, Macheath and his gang present their lives of thievery through airs of nobility, and their insistence on "honor and truth to the gang" (2588) would suggest that perhaps the people of the lower class, represented by the thieves, are above the rest in their loyalty to each other. This theory fails, however, when Macheath is betrayed by one of his own and admits before his execution, "’Tis a plain proof that the world is all alike, and that even our gang can no more trust one another than other people." Thus, despite the difference of trade and class, the fact that both Peachum and the thieves are cheats, and the manner in which men of all other professions are presented in the same disregard suggest that mercantilism equally reduces all men by the same vice.

While mercantilism might make all classes of men equal cheats, cheating becomes a virtue that separates men of affluence in the play because of their indemnity from the law. In the beginning of the poem, the first character introduced, the Beggar, says, "If poverty be a title to poetry, I am sure nobody can dispute mine" (2574). The correlation here between "poverty" and poetry is important later in the play, when the Beggar refers to the ending he had intended as "strict poetical justice" (2615). He elaborates the concept of poetical justice when he goes on to say:

"It is difficult to determine whether (in the fashionable vices) the fine gentlemen imitate the gentlemen of the road, or the gentlemen of the road the fine gentlemen. Had the play remained, as I at 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" (2615-6).

The connection can be made that along with the Beggar’s right to poetry comes his inclination to poetical justice, which would have allowed that Macheath, as a fine gentleman or a gentleman of the road to be punished the same. Instead, however, the Player makes a point about the social status of the audience, suggesting they had no such title to poetry, or poetical justice, but instead are anticipating the happy ending of an opera. The Player goes on to say, "All this we must do, to comply with the taste of the town" (2615). It is clear that the Player is making an assumption that the audience is composed of "that richer sort of people," and that the rich are quick to abandon "justice" in general. So regardless of the people who actually composed the audiences of these performances, by contrasting the Beggar’s expectations of law to those that would be assumed of an affluent audience, the play suggests that the two social classes are indeed not the same in their experience with the law. To the moneyed class, the law, like poetical justice, "is easily removed" (2615). In general, the thieves in the play assume to be ignorant of their disadvantaged plight, and one of them even consoles Macheath at the end of the play saying, "We are heartily sorry, Captain, for your misfortune. But ‘tis what we must all come to" (2615). Thus, like the Beggar, he assumes that all cheats will pay the same price. But it is Macheath who ends up behind the bars, not Peachum or Lockit. One must observe that even their slight elevation in status above the thieves grants them noticeable indemnity from the law. As a result, Peachum betrays Macheath, and is actually rewarded (financially) by the law. Thus, it becomes apparent that the society portrayed in the play is one in which men of higher status are rewarded for cheating, making cheating the virtue that separates them from the lower class.

In The Beggar’s Opera, the mercantilist system fosters a society in which men of all classes are reduced equals interdependent upon one another by a common vice, cheating. Yet, by not making them accountable to the law, the mercantilist system rewards those cheats of higher status, thus making cheating their virtue. By perverting the role of a vice like cheating in his mock, Gay was able to satirize a system and the people who enjoyed his production.

 

WORKS CITED

Assignment, The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay.