Act II opens in a tavern near Newgate prison.
There, the thieves of Peachum’s gang drink and smoke tobacco. Present are Jemmy Twitcher, Crook-Finger’d Jack, Wat Dreary, Robin of Bagshot, Nimming Ned, Henry Paddington, Matt of the Mint, Ben Budge and others who go unnamed.
Ben, back from a stint in the colonies, inquires after Matt’s brother, Tom. Matt informs him that Tom died a year before, following an accident. Because Tom had been a criminal, his cadaver was hauled off for medical experiments.
Jemmy asserts that the law treats criminals unjustly, since what they earn is won fairly, by right of conquest. They are no more dishonest than the rest of mankind is. In fact, he considers criminals to be the most honest, brave and industrious of men, since they would gladly die for one another. As he says, "Show me a gang of courtiers that can say as much" (p. 28).
Matt then delivers a speech to justify their trade: "The world is avaricious" (p. 28), and so they redistribute its wealth, simply taking property from those who have no use for it.
They fill their glasses, and Matt leads a drinking song.
Macheath enters the tavern as the men are preparing to leave for 'work.' He tells them about his problems with Peachum, who is of course their handler. He exhorts them to pretend that he has quit the gang, but to continue following Peachum's orders. He believes he can take hold of the situation under this pretense. They agree to his subterfuge, and rise to leave. A melancholy Macheath sits down at the table.
Meanwhile, Matt sings a rousing air to inspire the gang. They load their pistols and hide them under their shirts as they exit, re-singing the first part of the chorus.
Macheath, sitting alone, reflects that Polly is a fool because of her fondness for and trust in him, since he could never be "contented...with one woman" (p. 30). He sings an air in praise of women, considering how their allure will cure any ailment or woe.
When a Drawer enters, Macheath inquires whether the porter has returned from fetching the ladies, as per instructions Macheath had previously given.
His question is answered with the entrance of the ladies: Mrs. Coaxer, Dolly Trull, Mrs. Vixen, Betty Doxy, Jenny Diver, Mrs. Slammekin, Suky Tawdry and Molly Brazen.
Macheath greets them with both vulgar, jubilant exhortations and personalized intimacies. It is clear that he has known them all for years, and that he has a colorful history with them. His spirits rise to quite a frenzy, capped by the entrance of a harp-player who accompanies the group as they dance à la ronde. At the end of the dance, he and the chorus of women sing an air that preaches they should drink, love, and enjoy life in the moment, since the next day might never come.
The women then coyly compliment one another on their superior thieving skills.
Macheath remarks on Jenny Diver’s reserved attitude. After explaining how he sees in her merely what he wants to see, she sings an air about a cock in a hen house, and the mischievous tension before the cock chooses his hen. The women then trade stories of the men they have romantically ensnared — a Jew, a student, an old man — and how well these dupes have served them.
Jenny Diver inquires after Macheath’s wealth. Macheath admits he has earned much money in his day, but that the gaming-tables have proven his ruin. Jenny then sings an air which equates gamesters to lawyers — winner takes all.
Jenny and Suky Tawdry flirtatiously lure Macheath into a compromising physical position, and steal his pistols from him. They then signal to the constable and Peachum, who have appeared across the room. Peachum seizes Macheath as his prisoner. Macheath, realizing that Jenny and Tawdry have betrayed him, curses womankind: "Beasts, jades, jilts, harpies, furies, whores!" (p. 36).
Macheath sings a quick air, which states that no suffering is as wicked as these women and their double-crossing nature. As he is led away by the constables and Peachum, he warns the ladies that he will eventually take his revenge.
The ladies remain, and try to weasel from Jenny and Tawdry a portion of the money Peachum paid them to betray Macheath. They argue that Peachum should have arranged his plan with them, since they have worked together so often in the past. Jenny refuses, but offers them a conciliatory drink.
The scene shifts to Newgate prison.
There, the jailer Lockit displays a wide range of fetters to Macheath. For the right price (i.e. bribe), Macheath can select chains that are more or less comfortable. Macheath makes his selection, and pays up. Lockit then leaves, accompanied by several constables and turnkeys.
Macheath, alone and in chains, sings an air which compares woman to a basilisk, a mythical snake that can kill with a look. He then laments his marriage to Polly, claiming that his dishonesty is her fault, since women believe anything that justifies their desires, looking "upon a promise as an excuse for following their own inclinations" (p. 38).
Enter Lucy Lockit, from whom Macheath recoils. Lucy is incensed because Macheath has jilted her by promising to marry her and then reneging. She now longs to see him tortured, and sings an air which compares him to a rat one tries to exterminate.
Macheath seeks to calm her, naming himself her husband “in ev’ry respect but the form” (p. 39). Lucy rejects this claim, and sings an air which names him a traitor and a villain. Macheath insists that he shall marry her, but Lucy has heard of his marriage to Polly Peachum. Macheath scoffs at the idea: "You know, Lucy, the girl [Polly] is prodigiously conceited. No man can say a civil thing to her, but (like other fine ladies) her vanity makes her think he’s her own for ever and ever" (pp. 40-41).
Macheath then sings an air on the subject of women’s vanity, which insists that even as women grow older, their self-love fools them into believing they look young.
This air softens Lucy and disposes her towards believing Macheath. We discover here that Lucy is the daughter of the jailer Lockit.
Peachum and Lockit, still in Newgate, study an account book. It is clear they work together as they discuss how to evenly split the profit gained by Macheath's arrest and execution. As they work, they reminisce on their years of shared conspiracies.
Peachum discovers several deficits in their accounts, all resulting from unpaid reward-monies owed by the government for criminals. Peachum vows to stop delivering criminals to the courts if the courts cannot pay, and Lockit notes that career criminals like he and Peachum are treated contemptuously by the justice system. Peachum agrees, but also understands the basis for this contempt: "[L]ike great statesmen, we encourage those who betray their friends" (p. 42).
This characterization offends Lockit's sensibility, and he warns Peachum to amend his speech. He then sings an air that insists any general criticism will be received personally by whoever hears it.
Returning to the account book, Peachum discovers that Lockit has failed to make good on a promise to keep one of their spies out of the courts. Instead, Lockit has betrayed the man, claiming the reward for his capture. Peachum adds that one of the women has further charged Lockit with defrauding her own information-money.
Lockit, offended and enraged, lunges at Peachum, in the process reminding him how he has saved Peachum from the gallows. They tussle for a moment before Peachum declares that both are guilty parties and responsible for the other. They calm down, and shake hands before Peachum leaves for home.
After Peachum exits, Lucy enters and tearfully begs her father to show Macheath mercy. From the moment Lockit sees Lucy, he is disgusted by her lack of common sense. He insists that marriage is a foolish mistake, and that she should rejoice at Macheath's death.
Lucy sings a quick air, which describes her pain over Macheath's loss. Lockit responds with an equally quick air that insists her cares for the man with be hanged alongside the man himself.
Lucy returns to Macheath’s hold to report that her father is immovable. Macheath proposes that twenty guineas might serve to bribe Lockit, and then sings an air about the power of the perquisite (a tip or bribe), which can open one’s way to anything, including a woman’s virginity. Lucy vows to raise the money with which to bribe her father, after which she and Macheath can marry.
Polly Peachum suddenly rushes into the hold, bemoaning her husband’s fate. Her passions blind her to Lucy’s presence. Macheath, worried Polly would ruin his new plan, ignores her despite her cries for his attention.
Lucy immediately discerns that Macheath has been playing her — clearly, he has indeed married Polly Peachum. She calls him a villain as Polly continues to seek his attention, vowing to remain by his side until he dies. She sings an air that compares herself to a swallow whose mate has been taken into captivity. Though free, she herself is captive with her mate.
Macheath, continuing to ignore Polly, assures Lucy that Polly is crazy. She refuses to believe him, and both women eventually unite to insult him, swearing they wish he had died months before. They demand to know if he does indeed have two wives. (Lucy, of course, uses the term “wife” to signify the promise of becoming his wife. For her, the promise is as solid as the enactment of it.)
Macheath sings an air that insists he cannot choose between the women, and that he will speak to neither so long as they gang up on him. Their rage escalates, and they sing an air together about their anger, each of them following fast on the other's line.
Macheath continues to swear to Lucy that Polly is lying in an attempt to inherit his estate. Lucy finally believes him, and confronts Polly. In turn, Polly sings an air that insinuates Lucy is merely jealous. Lucy, intimate with the jail staff, threatens to have the turnkey forcibly eject Polly from Newgate. Polly haughtily vows to stay by her husband, and the women sing vicious airs, essentially calling each other sluts.
Peachum suddenly bursts in on the group, and tears Polly from the hold. He cannot allow her to foil his plot, since it will ensure they inherit Macheath’s wealth. Polly then sings an air that claims a parent’s protestation to love only strengthens it. She grabs onto Macheath, but her father pulls her away and leads her off.
Macheath, alone with Lucy once more, explains that his compassion prohibited him from treating Polly as cruelly as she deserved. Though unsettled by Polly's claims, Lucy chooses to believe Macheath's lies as he proclaims his love to her, and reminds her that his life is in her hands.
Lucy recalls her father’s habit of drinking with the prisoners until he passes out. She assumes he must be asleep at the moment, and decides to steal the keys to free Macheath. He warns her that he will have to flee immediately upon release, keeping away from her until the search cools. After that time, he promises to send for her so they can marry.
Lucy accepts his plan, and sings an air that laments the distance that shall separate them. Her song describes them as mated foxes, him as an animal pursued by hounds, destined to remain lost unless he uses his love to find his way home.
Act II, set in a tavern near Newgate prison and then in the prison itself, brings us deeper into the belly of the underworld, not only in terms of location, but also in terms of the characters we meet. Right away, Gay introduces a motley crew of despicable criminals. Interestingly, though, they embrace their underworld natures with pride, insisting as characters did in Act I that they are at least as honorable as 'higher' figures like lawyers or statesmen.
Specifically, they describe themselves as, “sound men, and true...of try’d courage, and indefatigable industry,” men who would gladly die for their brethren. The implication that nobility and gentry would in fact show less integrity than them is one of The Beggar’s Opera's most important themes.
It is useful to note that the word “gang” was used in Gay’s time to denote groups of both lowlifes and courtiers, and so he means to denounce not the underworld, but the 'respectable' world through these sentiments. Matt and his compatriots’ words soon turn towards the revolutionary:
Ben: We are for a just partition of the world, for every man hath a right to enjoy life.
Matt: 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 not the heart to make use of? (II.i).
Yet again, The Beggar's Opera delights in its transgression, not only insisting that the higher classes are as wicked as the lower classes are, but that they in fact perpetuate injustice through the wealth they waste and ironically exhibit as a sign of their virtue. In this way, Gay posits the criminals as heroes of a sort, like Robin Hood perhaps, characters who seek to bring an equilibrium to the world.
Of course, Gay does not simply romanticize the lower classes, but instead attacks man as inherently wicked. If the quasi-revolutionary exchange seems to reflect a socialistic approach to justice and the rights of man, consider that Macheath’s entrance on the heels of this speech — whereby he is met with great affection— immediately requires the men to swear they will double-cross the double-crosser Peachum. In other words, any insistence on integrity is regularly contradicted in Gay's world. Macheath's worry about Peachum is legitimate, but his plan also serves him by allowing him to thieve entirely on his own, free of contractual obligation to Peachum. The plot is simply chock-a-block with betrayals, ruses, and contractual reneging.
In other words, there is not even honor-among-thieves. Instead this ethos is as regularly reversed as the expectations of higher class morality is punctured. In fact, it is explicitly shown as fallacious when Jenny Diver and Suky Tawdry betray Macheath. The arrival of the gang’s female counterparts follows a moment in which Macheath reveals his own self-interested nature to the audience, using a moment of soliloquy to embrace his profligate taste and to actually blame women for that taste.
The gang women are no better. Prostitutes and schemers all, they openly praise their slyness and compliment one another on their duplicities. There is an ironic and remarkable candor in the trade of deception, and this candor invokes the simple, shared truth that money trumps friendship. Enacting this principle, Jenny Diver sells Macheath out to Peachum. Self-interest is central to Gay's conception of mankind.
This level of betrayal extends to the relationship between Peachum and Lockit. Though their fates and profits are inextricably tied, they seem to consider betrayal a natural part of their dealings. The speed with which their animosity abates is comical in suggesting how natural betrayal is to them. They finally find peace in agreeing that they can trust one another solely because they have power over one another. Each could damn the other, and only in this can trust subsist. Though comical, it is a rather pessimistic worldview.
Female sexuality is an added corruption within the world of The Beggar’s Opera, linked on the one hand to commerce, and on the other to vanity. For the former, we have the prostitutes; for the latter, we have Polly and Lucy. Both Polly and Lucy have given themselves to Macheath. The mores of the day required that sex be circumscribed within marriage. But Macheath has only actually married Polly, whereas he uses merely the promise of marriage to ensnare Lucy. Gay clearly has a skewed view of marriage, seeing it as merely a way for ensuring self-interest.
Of course, unfiltered sexuality and lust do not come off much better in the play. At Newgate, as Polly and Lucy battle each other for Macheath’s affection, Macheath allies himself with Lucy, the jailer’s daughter. To win her over, he suggests it is Polly’s vanity that causes her to misconstrue what passed between them: "[T]he girl [Polly] is prodigiously conceited. No man can say a civil thing to her, but (like other fine ladies) her vanity makes her think he’s her own forever" (pp. 40-41). In other words, women are attracted to Macheath not because they want him, but because it makes them love themselves. Ironically, what Lucy cannot see is that her own vanity and self-regard have landed her in this predicament. Alone in Newgate, prior to Lucy’s arrival, Macheath mused: "Do all we can, women will believe us; for they look upon a promise as an excuse for following their own inclinations" (p. 38). This line encapsulates the precarious causal relationship between vanity and female sexual desire, and aligns perfectly with the way Gay seems to see everyone: we love because we want something for ourselves, and we are almost always better off when we embrace this rather than ignoring it.
Finally, it is worth remembering how Gay continues to craft entertainment on top of his social messages. The Beggar mentioned in the Introduction that operas of the day required a prison scene, and he has now delivered it. That the bathos of the scenes is mixed with a heavy dose of irony only reminds us of Gay's power to tell a fun, engaging story while puncturing the very expectations that make that story entertaining for his audience.