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In the final entry about satire in comedy, I will be discussing the Beggar’s Opera.  In Marmontel’s entry about comedy, he states:

As for the usefulness of moral and decent comedy, as it is nowadays in our theatre, to call this into question again is to claim that men are insensitive to contempt and shame; it is to suppose either that they are unable to blush, or that they cannot purge themselves of the faults which make them blush; it is to make characters free of self-esteem which is the soul of them, and place us above public opinion, of which weakness and pride are the slaves, and from which virtue itself has so much difficulty in freeing itself.

The Beggar’s Opera is full of the satirical comedy that is present in my pervious two entries about comedy.  The satire in the articles does as Marmontel suggests it should and causes the reader to reflect not only on the moral standing of the characters but also his own personal moral flaws.  That is to say, satire points two ways, we’re all prostitutes, thieves, and murderers in our own way.      

In the first act of the Beggar’s Opera, the characters Beggar and Player introduce readers to an opera (lacking a prologue) that follows the life of a man named Peachum who runs a gang of thieves, highwaymen, and prostitutes.  The strong satirical voice of the opera is evident immediately in the opening lines: “Through all the employments of life / Each neighbor abuses his brother; / …The priest calls the lawyer a cheat / the lawyer be-knaves the divine”.  Peachum states that both men in his own profession and lawyers are alike because they have honest  that should both “protect and encourage cheats” because they can profit from them or turn them in (2559).  The ambiguous morality of the opera is displayed in Peachum, one of the many main characters and antiheroes in the Beggar’s Opera.  

The first conflict of the opera presents itself in the from of forbidden love.  Polly, the daughter of Peachum, has fallen in love with one of the highwaymen that her father employs.  Obviously, Peachum is unhappy with his daughter’s choice in men. Marmontel introduces the theory that: “Men, they say, do not recognize their own image: this can be denied boldly. People think they can deceive others, but they can never deceive themselves; a person may claim public esteem, but he would not dare show himself if he feared he might be known as he knows himself.”  The morals, or rather lack of morals, in the opera seem to prove the point that art does not necessarily exist to serve a moral purpose. Although the opera itself does not have a strong sense of morality throughout, each character, upon close examination, can be found with his own moral compass in hand.  In the case of Polly falling in love with Captain Macheath, a prolific highwayman, Peachum although he claims to work in an upright and honest profession cannot deceive himself.   Peachum recognizes his own image in Captain Macheath and that recognition causes him to try to keep Polly away from her wayward lover. 

Delving into the character of Captain Macheath yields further exploration into the satirical aspect the opera presents.  Captain Macheath is Peachum’s best highwayman. Obviously robbery and murder are horrible crimes to commit but in the context of the Beggar’s Opera, readers never see the victims of the crimes that are committed.  The act of leaving the victims to anonymity transforms Captain Macheath from prolific killing antihero to the charming hero of the story. Captain Macheath seems to fall right into the version of Marmontel’s comedic hero.    

If you consider the number of features going to make up a comic character, you could say that comedy is an exaggerated imitation. It is indeed hard to envisage that one man, in a single day, could display so many avaricious traits as Molière combined in Harpagon; but this exaggeration becomes realistic again when the traits are multiplied within a series of artfully contrived situations. As regards the strength of each trait, realism has its limits.

Captain Macheath possesses the extreme avaricious traits of which Marmontel writes.  But also as Marmontel comments, the exaggeration of Captain Macheath’s greed are believable because the relativity of his situation to those in the rest of the opera.   

Throughout the opera, Gay leads readers on quite a journey in which Captain Macheath is the center.  Readers learn more about his failures and his, shall we say, wrongful imprisonment where he undergoes emotional turmoil and he struggles against Peachum’s wishes to take his life.  Marmontel states: “People still say that nobody will reform himself: this is unfortunate for those for whom this is an emotional truth; but if indeed human nature is in essence incorrigible, at least the exterior is not.”  But is this true in the case of Captain Macheath?  Through trial and drama with his many former suitors, does he reform himself?  In his closing lines, he states that his life is now back on track and he shall rightfully take Polly as his bride.  However, “if indeed human nature is in essence incorrigible” as Marmontel asserts, can Captain Macheath truly be forsaking the highwayman he once was?     

Marmontel once again asserts that: “Men touch each other only on the surface; and all would be in order if one could reduce those who are born vicious, ridiculous, or wicked, to being so only within themselves: this is the aim of comedy; and the theatre is to vice and folly what the courts are to the crimes they judge, and the scaffolds where they are punished.”  The Beggar’s Opera plays right into his theory.  By pointing out the vices of the judge and that scaffolds that Captain Macheath hardly escapes, the comedic satire of the opera causes the audience to question their own judgments. 

            The opera closes not with Macheath’s execution but a rather satirical “happy ending” based on the audience’s desire for closure rather than their need for a moral tale.  So this mock opera (that also lacks an epilogue) contains no real moral.  The ending, however, is arbitrary.  The lack of morality through satire, or writing in general as the page “You Don’t Trust the People.  You Trust the Morals.” suggests, prompts a moral reflection in its own right. 

         In relation to the privacy of the coterie poets and Robison Crusoe, Gay’s play was widely broadcast onstage.  As Marmontel suggests, it is the best way to present comedic works.  The Beggar’s Opera lends to wider availability to audiences.  The coterie poets and Defoe did not employ the usage of the stage, but they still did advance Marmontel’s theories.   

William Hogarth, The Beggar's Opera