A lawyer is an honest employment, so is mine. Like me too he acts in a double capacity, both against rogues and for ‘em; for ‘tis but fitting that we should protect and encourage cheats, since we live by ‘em.
These are Peachum’s first unsung words, spoken at the top of the play. It is an apologia of sorts — a justification of behavior and therefore defense against criticism — for his criminal livelihood. He is a professional double-crosser, running a gang of thieves and turning those same thieves in for reward money. By equating his profession with the “honest” practice of law — a profession that, in the supposed service of justice, protects and profits from criminals — he exposes the arbitrary ethical line that society draws in defining justice. In essence, Peachum here levels the playing field between those on the right and wrong side of the law and asserts one of the play’s main themes, that self-interest and profitability dictate morality. All humans are hypocritical; the only real dividing line is success.
A maid is like the golden ore/ Which hath guineas intrinsical in’t/ Whose worth is never known, before/ It is try’d and imprest in the Mint./ A wife’s like a guinea in gold,/ Stampt with the name of her spouse;/ Now here, now there; is bought, or is sold;/ And is current in every house.
This is an air sung by Mrs. Peachum in Act I, Scene V, following her first exchange with her husband on the subject of whether Polly has secretly taken up with Macheath. Peachum, her husband, has reacted angrily to the suggestion, outraged at the idea that Polly may have so carelessly wasted her currency as a virgin, thereby limiting her ability to entice men and subsequently their purses. Worse, Polly may have married Macheath, effectively making herself his property. Mrs. Peachum, alone on stage, reflects on her husband’s narrow vision of the matter. The air above suggests that a woman’s currency in fact grows greater once she is a wife. As a “maid,” no one knows the lady’s value. She is the golden ore that has not yet been turned into a quantifiable coin. Once the coin is “try’d and imprest” — through sex and marriage — she carries the vouchsafed approval of her husband, and thereby gains freedom of movement, to and from any house. As occurs many times in the play, this moment expresses a rather progressive idea of femininity, by both embracing its sexual potential and suggesting the way that potential can help a woman find freedom in an otherwise patriarchal world.
Away, hussy. Hang your husband, and be dutiful.
Mrs. Peachum shouts this at Polly after having realized Polly’s naiveté in marrying Macheath. Mrs. Peachum fervently agrees with Peachum that Polly’s financial future will be ruined unless she submits to her parents’ plan of securing a jointure — effectively a last will — and then aiding her father in betraying Macheath to the authorities. The predicament Polly faces — fidelity to her parents or fidelity to her heart — is a familiar theme and storyline in the melodramas of the age. However, what is unique is the intensity with which Mrs. Peachum attacks her daughter. Not only is the language extreme, but the diction ("hussy") suggests an open acknowledgment of sexuality, a far reach from the faint-prone mothers of the melodramas being mocked. John Gay pushes the familiar theme to a ludicrous extreme, encapsulated above by Mrs. Peachum’s words.
Methinks I see him already in the cart, sweeter and more lovely that the nosegay in his hand!—I hear the crowd extolling his resolution and intrepidity!—What vollies of sighs are sent from the windows of Holborn, that so comely a youth should be brought to discrace!
Polly speaks these lines privately to herself, to lament the fate she fears Macheath will suffer. She imagines his approach in the "cart" (a vehicle reserved for the shaming of villains) and then his death by hanging. Unique in this violent lament is her ability for self-deception. Rather than actually confronting the brutality of his death, she imagines him as stoical and heroic, more beautiful and sweet-smelling than the bouquet of flowers he holds; his figure draws sighs from all who look on him. This passage satirizes the fashionable melodramatic expression of the age, all the while portraying Polly’s exquisitely female foolishness. Polly imbues the hanging of her lover with nobility, restating Gay’s persistent theme that society’s mores rest entirely on one’s subjective, self-serving point of view.
Suspect my honour, my courage, suspect any thing but my love.—May my pistols miss fire, and my mare slip her shoulder while I am pursu’d if I forsake thee!
These lines belong to Macheath's elaborately embellished oath of fidelity to Polly. She has only just released him from his hiding place in her chamber, thus reuniting them after a long day apart. This is our very first glimpse of Macheath, and it is very telling that he asserts the opposite of what will eventually be revealed about his character, namely, that he has little honor, little courage and little interest in fidelity. Gay again mocks the fashionable melodrama of the age, introducing a perfect male hero mostly for the joy of reversing these expectations beginning in the next Act. His excessive, romantic phrasing is meant to be recognizable from melodrama, so that Gay can suggest that such profusion often hides naked self-interest. Arguably, Macheath gives us some indication of his true character - “suspect my honour, my courage...” - but we are most certainly supposed to be as fooled as Polly is.
We retrench the superfluities of mankind. The world is avaritious, and I hate avarice. A covetous fellow, like a jack-daw, steals what he was never made to enjoy, for the sake of hiding it. These are the robbers of mankind, for money was made for the free-hearted and generous, and where is the injury of taking from another, what he hath no heart to make use of?
Matt's rousing speech seems to reflect a socialistic approach to justice and the rights of man, encompassing the spirit of an alehouse Robin Hood. On the one hand, we must agree with the sentiment: the distribution of wealth is grossly unfair, the aristocracy and gentry hoarding all they can for the very sake of hoarding. Matt’s revolutionary courage shall level the playing field, aiding men of all rank in the pursuit of happiness! On the other hand, the methods of these highwaymen — befriending an unsuspecting youth at a gaming table, for example, only to jump him and steal his earnings on his way home — are anything but noble, since they involve betrayal of trust and abuse of friendship. This speech is a recapitulation of the theme of hypocrisy that runs through the play. Even the most powerful sentiments fall before the actual vices of mankind.
What signifies a promise to a woman? Does not man in marriage itself promise a hundred things that he never means to perform? Do all we can, women will believe us; for they look upon a promise as an excuse for following their own inclinations.
Macheath's musing here, while alone in his cell at Newgate, presents a damning view of woman’s shortsightedness and self-interest. The truth or falsity of a promise has no bearing upon what a woman perceives to be true, for what she wishes is that she hears. In this way, she is gullible, small-minded and capricious. This egotistical myopia is certainly reflected in Lucy and Polly’s susceptibility to Macheath’s machinations. Of course, one should not think John Gay particularly harsh on women. Instead, what Macheath says about women seems equally true of everyone in the world of the opera. People pursue their self-interest, and rationalize it however they must.
Lucy: A husband!
Macheath: In ev’ry respect but the form, and that, my dear, may be said over us at any time.
Ev’ry respect but the form: These words could serve as the guiding principle for the ethical foundation of the characters in The Beggar’s Opera. In a plot teeming with double-crosses, no character lives up to his word. Conversely, words fail to describe the truth of their own matter. In reality, form and content are mutually dependent categories. But in Gay’s world, one or the other is always in flux, changing in accordance with the characters’ immediate desire. In other words, people gladly say what they need in order to get what they want, and then later convince themselves that they mean those words. Nothing is true except self-interest, and so Macheath is happy to call whatever he needs marriage, so long as it serves his desires.
Brother Peachum—I can forgive as well as resent.
Lockit pronounces this splendid sentiment in a conciliatory exchange he shares with Peachum after a small fight. The statement's conciseness is glorious in its economy and wit. In Lockit’s formulation, the lofty capacity for forgiveness resides in a person in exactly the same measure as the capacity for resentment does. Experience of the human heart tells us, however, that if such a formulation is made, we may suspect that resentment holds the greater share of that heart. Lockit's inability to significantly delineate forgiveness and resentment reflects Gay's pessimistic view of human nature, as well as his ability to explore that view with humor.
But think of this maxim, and put off your sorrow,
The wretch of to-day, may be happy tomorrow.
These lines come from the final rhyming couplet of the opera's final air. Sung by the ensemble of highwaymen and disreputable ladies, the couplet points self-reflexively at its own epigrammatic form. Epigrammatic statement is a literary device by which an author snappily summarizes a story's moral. By acknowledging this device, i.e. by invoking the word “maxim,” Gay satirizes the improbable and overly sentimental endings of the popular operas of the time. Maxims are, essentially, statements of cliché. Thus, the characters sing and dance together, celebrating the happy ending that the Beggar uses to replace his original ending. While Gay delivers what the audience theoretically wants, he also mocks those very expectations. However, even notwithstanding the irony, the sentiment conforms to Gay's worldview, since just as the wretch of today may be happy tomorrow, so too may the happy man of today become tomorrow’s wretch.
The Beggar’s Opera Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Beggar’s Opera is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.