Self Interest

In the play The Beggar’s Opera, the characters act in their own self-interest and use their relationships with other people as a commodity. Gay uses this to point out that these characters of the lower class are no different than those of the upper class. They are selfish and they are scoundrels. But they are so much like the upper class that the registers of upper class and lower class are almost interchangeable throughout the play. Gay satirizes these lower class characters as heroes because of their vices and because they act in their own self-interest, the difference being they don’t have the money to buy their way out of punishment and are dependent on the author's reprieve.

Macheath, Peachum and Locket are heroes in the economic sense because they act in their own self-interest, a point that Gay is satirizing. In the play, it is a duty to act in your own self-interest. It is your duty to act in the way to gain the most profit. Duty is a virtuous trait most often given to heroes. So, is it heroic to be selfish? If it is heroic to be

selfish than Macheath truly is a hero, even though it seems that to be heroic one would have to be acting for the cause of the greater good. It is his selfishness that is being glorified. Selfishness is a vice. But it is not so in mercantilism. Mercantilism is essentially the idea based on an economy where the only way it will work is if everyone acts in his or her own self-interest. Gay is satirizing the fact that what English economy has come to be dependent on for their wealth, to satisfy their vice greed, is selfishness, another vice. But it is the only way the economy can work. But not only the middle class and the upper class are dependent on this form of economy but the lower class depend on it too making a long vicious circle. So, in a sense, acting in one owns self-interest like Macheath, Locket, and Peachum, is acting for the greater good. If it is acting for the greater good, then it is heroic.

Acting in one’s self-interest is to make the most our of the relationship with others and is more noble. "You can’t have the man and the money too – so make yourself as easy as you can, by getting all you can from him" (2598) It is to Polly’s advantage that she remains single unless she can gain profit from her husband. She can gain profit from his hanging as Peachum points out to her. If she is married, to Peachum it is the only logical solution to profit by it as much as she can. It is the only choice, it is her "duty". If she hangs him then his relationship to her is a commodity and Polly joins the other

characters in this profession of making money from the lives of others, turning the lives of people into commodities, like Peachum makes money off of turning thieves in. Love is not of the well bred as Mrs. Peachum exclaims, "Love him! Worse and worse! I thought the girl had been better bred" (2581). However, if she allows him liberties without marriage she is like a lady and does it only in the view of self-interest. Once again if a character acts in their own self-interest then it is a character that can be compared to the nobility. If not, the character is foolish and common. Lucy also will not act in her own self-interest because of the love she has for Macheath. She is a "vulgar [common] slut" who if she "would not be looked upon as a fool, [she] should never do anything but on the foot [for the sake of] interest" (2603).

Macheath thinks his gang is better than the courtiers but goes on to prove that they both act in self-interest. Macheath and his gang tend to relate themselves to the upper class, the "courtiers". His gang questions "Who is there here who would not die for his friend? Who is there here that would betray him for his interest? Show me a gang of courtiers that can say as much" (2588). There is a reference in here to the "gang of courtiers". This device as depicting the upper class as the lower class and vice versa is used throughout the opera. It is just another way that Gay shows us the similarities and relates the two classes as being pretty much the same. Macheath is claiming that there is no group, "gang" of courtiers that would respect friendship. Earlier, Macheath claims that he is not "a mere court friend". Once again the registers of the nobility and the lower class are interchanged. Mere is a word meaning simple, but it is used to modify the meaning of the high-class court. Macheath goes on to quote "the court so common [is] grown / That a true friend can hardly be met; / Friendship for interest is but a loan / Which they let out for what they can get" (2605). In every courtier’s mind there is the question of how to use the friendship, the relationship, for his or her own self-interest. Macheath thinks his gang is above it, and attempts to show this, but only to prove exactly the opposite. The question of dying for ones friends as well as the honorable sense can be read as to die because of one’s friends. Macheath is very much set up to do this and is saved only by the author, the beggar, calling for a reprieve at the end. He does not die for his friends but instead dies because of his friends. Ironically enough, these friends who did turn him in did so for the self-interest aspect of having him hanged, the money.

The difference between Macheath and the upper-class is the money, not the vice. Macheath’s life is to be taken because he can’t afford to pay what he owes, which means in fact that he can’t afford to pay the bribes necessary to get him out of prison. This infers, however, that the nobility can. The laws in London at this time were made to protect the nobility and keep the lower class down, to keep the lower class as debtors and keep more of the lower class in the prisons. "Gold from law can take out the sting; / And if rich men like us were to swing, ‘Twould thin the land" (2614).

All men have their vices. Gay satirizes the vice in the upper class by placing the same vices in these lower class characters and not giving them the means, the money, to get out of it. The characters then become heroes to a small degree but the audience is left with a hollow ending because "an opera must end happily" (2615).