Beggar's Opera, written by John Gay is the first ballad opera in the English language. It is interesting to note that it was also the most popular work of English theater during the eighteenth century. This is interesting because Gay used his opera to satirize the society of his time. This satirization however is not derogatory or moralistic enough to give much offense. Rather the opera was written with enjoyment as its primary aim. This is also in keeping with Gay's view of the world. His art was created for enjoyment, while it also struck a deeper chord. Through metaphor and simile John Gay gives the audience an experience never to forget.
In terms of metaphor, Gay's entire cast of characters play the role of metaphor depicting social ills of the time. The subtitle of Gay's opera was "A Newgate Pastoral." This is however deliberately misleading for satiric effect. Instead of the nymphs and shepherds that was expected of a Pastoral, the characters comprise the criminal underworld of London, such as pickpockets, cutthroats, receivers of stolen property, corrupt jailers, and women of easy virtue. In this way the satire becomes both an anti-romance and an anti-opera. The conventions of beauty are therefore used to depict what is wrong in society.
In satirizing the conventions of opera and romance, the Beggar's Opera arranges a meeting of opposites. Macheath the criminal thus refers to himself as a "man of honor." Instead of the expected nobleman, this man of honor is a mere criminal, but he is more than that. Gay turns him into a metaphor for the hypocrisy of those who like to believe in their own heroics. Specifically, Macheath represents the aristocrat and the army officer. His affectations and efforts at romance later in the opera reflect this.
Lockit is the chief jailor, and represents the civil servant and the bureaucrat. Lockit shows himself to be superficially polite, while hardly making an effort to disguise his own nature. Macheath makes the connection between Lockit's dishonesty and practices by other civil servants. Lockit's view is that exploitation is so prevalent in society that it would be foolish to do anything out of something other than self-interest. This is reflected in his words:
Lions, Wolves, and Vultures don't live together in Herds, Droves or Flocks. Of all Animals of Prey, Man is the only sociable one. Every one of us preys upon his Neighbor, and yet we herd together." (III.iii, p. 49)
The simile at the end of Aria XLIII emphasizes this theme in its depiction of the deceits connected to friendship: "Like Pikes, lank with Hunger, who miss of their Ends,
They bite their Companions, and prey on their Friends." (p. 49)
The idea depicted here is that human society ethically no better than a pike pond.
Another less that savory character is Peachum, who metaphorically depicts the prosperous and apparently respectable middle class. This is however deceptive, as shown by Jonathan Wild, the model for the character. Wild lived a double life of both criminality and respectability, and so does Peachum.
Feminine hypocrisy is attacked by means of Lucy and Polly. Marriage a the time was a business deal for a woman. Love was out of the question, and often sought outside of marriage. The best a woman could hope for was to marry a rich husband who would soon meet his demise and leave her with his fortune. This is exactly what Mrs. Peachum wishes for her daughter, Polly. Mrs. Peachum's reaction to her daughter's choice of husband, Macheath, was shock. This is not so much because he is a criminal, although that is certainly part of it, but also because she was marrying him for love. This is a metaphor for the marital conventions of the time, as well as the young girl's wish to break with traditions established by her parents. Mrs. Peachum's shocked reaction is: "I thought the Girl had been better bred" (I.viii) (p. 58). Convention is here confused with moral issues of marriage and upbringing. But as it turns out, Mrs. Peachum does know more than her daughter about the trappings of marriage. She warns her about the consequences of such a step:
Can you support the Expence of a Husband, Hussy, in gaming, drinking and whoring? Have you Money enough to carry on the daily Quarrels of Man and Wife about who shall squander most?
There are not many Husbands and Wives, who can bear the Charges of plaguing one another in a…