The Beggar's Opera

The Beggar's Opera Essay Questions

  1. 1

    How does Gay depict the differences between male and female sexuality?

    Gay depicts both men and women as being animated by unarguably strong physical desires. It is the consequence of acting upon these desires that differs for men and women. We see that the physical desires of young, unmarried women imperil them, 'ruining' them by by societal standards. Women confuse sex with love, clouding their assessment of a suitor's intention. In this way, a woman's sexuality is a danger to her. The expression of male sexuality, on the other hand, is a matter of robust, good health. Men fall prey to their own foibles in matters of sex - over-indulgence, for example, or the begetting of too many children - rather than falling prey to the machinations of women. It is taken for granted that a man will follow his sexual desires. The gaggle of prostitutes provides an alternative model to this dichotomy, yet we receive only reports of the men taken advantage of. We never see these men.

  2. 2

    How does friendship operate in The Beggar’s Opera?

    Though there are several seemingly strong friendships in the opera, friendship operates only according to how it serves a character’s self-interest. Peachum and Lockit profess to be friends, but endeavor to cheat each other. The highwaymen take great pride in their fidelity to one another, but easily betray their friends for money. The prostitutes put on airs of refinement with one another, but do not so fraudulently pretend to be friends. Ultimately, Gay's pessimism about each man's inherent selfishness means that the more friendly two people seem, the more ironically they will eventually betray one another when their partner no longer serves their interests.

  3. 3

    Macheath exclaims “That Jemmy Twitcher should peach me, I own surpriz’d me!—‘Tis a plain proof that the world is all alike...” (p. 70). Explain this sentiment. What does Macheath mean by “the world is all alike,” and where else in the play may we find proof of it?

    In recognizing that Jemmy has betrayed him, Macheath acknowledges that money will undermine any promise or loyalty. Because every man will choose his own profit over any virtue, "the world is all alike." This pessimistic sentiment pervades the entire opera; almost every instance of disloyalty in the story has money as its cause. Peachum chooses loyalty based on profit, criminals betray one another, and even Polly and Lucy are aware that marriage is connected to the possibility of an inheritance. Every time a character parallels statesmen or lawyers to cutthroats and criminals, he or she is explicating that the world's driving force is profit, not virtue, and most times that characters act, they confirm this truth.

  4. 4

    How do the lyrics of Gay’s airs reinforce his themes?

    The lyrics of Gay's airs reinforce two significant themes or elements of the opera. Firstly, most of the songs are written from the point of view of the character singing them, justifying their actions. Since one of his primary concerns is exploring humanity's inherent self-interest, it makes sense that these songs would serve mostly as rationalizations of questionable behavior, rather than as attempts to find some objective truth. Secondly, Gay means with his opera to mock the tastes of the general public for elitist melodramatic operas. By mimicking the form of those elitist operas but using everyday ballad melodies with often transgressive lyrics, he reinforces the irony of a form that ignores the actual reality of everyday life in favor of empty platitudes.

  5. 5

    Gay’s play introduced a new form, the “ballad opera.” Discuss this form and consider how its uniqueness may have impacted the 18th century audience.

    The Beggar’s Opera was the first play to utilize well-known ballads and contemporary songs, rather than music that had been specially composed for the work. Gay rewrote the lyrics of these familiar airs to suit the needs of his story. These lyrics differed enormously from their tunes’ originals. The introduction of new lyrics to old and familiar songs would have been enormously entertaining for the 18th century audience, for several reasons. First, it would eliminate the disconnect between the elitism of the popular, imported Italian operas and the everyday public. Secondly, it naturally mocked the pretenses of those who favored the former. By introducing the transgressive satire of everyday talk into an ostensibly elitist form, Gay was challenging his audience to look not only at the world around them, but also at themselves.

  6. 6

    How does Gay employ the literary burlesque in The Beggar’s Opera?

    Literary burlesque may be defined as the mocking representation of a serious subject or style, presented in an incongruous way. There are three types of burlesque at work in The Beggar’s Opera. First, there is the burlesque of the heroic drama or sentimental comedy of the day. Gay mocks the expectations and conventions of the melodramatic opera, while ostensibly conforming to those expectations. Second, there is the burlesque of the well-loved songs of the period; he takes these common songs and makes stories from them. Third, there is the burlesque of contemporary romance. By fulfilling audience expectations for stage romance but imbuing the relationships with perversions of sexuality and marriage, he is having fun with conventions that would otherwise be taken as serious.

  7. 7

    Discuss the revised ending of the opera. Why do you think Gay has the Player succeed in convincing the Beggar to change the 'original' ending?

    Gay has achieved quite a feat by the end of the play, having both lampooned sentimental comedy and successfully employed it. We do not wish to see real harm come to any of his characters. Vicious they may be, but we like them (most of them), and root for them. This is a result of Gay’s satirical mastery. If the tone were not light enough, however, the play might be repugnant. To have watched absolute crooks without any levity might have offended, rather than entertained and challenged, his audience. The ending first proposed by the Beggar is both more and less honest to the opera that precedes it. In terms of the real world, Macheath would most likely deserve and find a fate by hanging. However, in terms of the opera - which explores real world issues through an exaggerated style - the Beggar's ending would have been disharmonious. One could argue that Gay was unwilling to eschew his entertainer instinct by depressing his audience, or that he means to challenge his audience into considering how manufactured endings can be. Or perhaps he simply acknowledged a reality: what sort of air could possibly be sung to close the show following Macheath's hanging?

  8. 8

    How would you characterize the tone and the intention of the social and political satire of The Beggar’s Opera?

    Firstly, it is difficult to argue that the tone of The Beggar's Opera is not extremely light. Even when his characters show their most vicious sides, Gay employs entertainment to lighten the mood, either through jokes or through songs. However, this contradiction also contains within it a sense of social satire, which mocks criminals but suggests they are merely more honest depictions of all humans (who are repeatedly described as self-interested and hypocritical). The most explicit instances of social satire come from clever speeches concerning the fashions and follies of men. Most interestingly, because the critique encompasses all classes of men and women, and all employments, and because it is delivered in such a fanciful, enjoyable play, it never feels accusatory or shrill. The one primary exceptions is the political satire, aimed towards Walpole and Townshend, which is considerably more biting.

  9. 9

    In what ways might the character of The Beggar represent John Gay, himself?

    The very idea that a beggar might pen a play could reflect Gay’s frustration with his inability to find support and patronage within the Court and aristocracy. John Gay’s literary contemporaries met with much greater success than he in securing such patronage, and yet he mocks the styles that made writers popular in the day. Immediately prior to writing The Beggar’s Opera, Gay had suffered a humiliating disappointment, having been offered the post of Gentleman-Usher to the infant Princess Louisa by George II’s court. Gay declined this offer, and his letters of this period reflect his sense of himself as an outcast. Thus, while his use of the Beggar certainly conforms to his social perspective, it might also serve as a commentary on his perception of himself as an outsider, one who has to beg and imitate in order to get noticed.

  10. 10

    What debt does the theatrical canon owe The Beggar’s Opera?

    The Beggar’s Opera may be counted as the first musical comedy, thereby giving birth to a continually developing form. In particular, it is important for having challenged the elitist conventions of opera, previously the primary musical theatre form available. More specifically, Charles Johnson’s The Village owes a great debt to John Gay, as do the Savoy Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera is the most famous restatement of The Beggar’s Opera, using both its plot and characters towards a deeply subversive analysis of capitalism's potential evils. Ultimately, Gay's opera is most important for its willful transgression, an element which has continued to resonate in stage work to this day.