In The Beggar’s Opera, we find the inversions of many societal norms for comedic effect. As is true of all satires, these purposeful reversals of positions and definitions, while at one moment the cause for hilarity, also serve to expose the dark truths behind institutions and ideas society accepts as natural. One of the institutions especially targeted in The Beggar’s Opera is the institution of marriage.
“Marriage” in the world of The Beggar’s Opera is something quite different from the legal definition we’re familiar with today. In 1728, when the play was first performed, marriages were “based on the proposition that ‘what creates the married state and constitutes the contract’ is ‘that FAITH by which the Man and Woman bind themselves to each other to live as man and wife’” (Bannet 244). In common language, this means that if a man and women exchanged promises to live together as man and wife, without witness, without a church ceremony, and without a binding legal document, they were in the eyes of the law, married. This means that marriages occurred with much more rapidity among the lower classes since no ceremony was required. It wasn’t until the Marriage Act of 1753 that the laws of marriage began to look more like what we know today.
It is through this definition of marriage that some of the play’s tension becomes more understandable. After all, how can all those women at the end of the play claim to be wives of Macheath? Apparently this occurrence of one man having multiple “legal” wives was much more common in the early 1700s, although I’m sure the situation is very much exaggerated in The Beggar’s Opera for comedy’s sake.
But what does marriage mean to the characters in The Beggar’s Opera? Peachum says that he “would indulge the girl [Polly]…in anything, but marriage!” (Gay 50). Marriage means that Polly would “make herself a property” and put the whole family squarely in her husband’s power. Yet, while Mr. Peachum views the possibility of his daughter marrying as an unmitigated disaster, Mrs. Peachum sees it as a way to increase Polly’s appeal to other gentlemen, thus bringing them further under the influence of the family. In the song “Of All the Simple Things We Do”, Mrs. Peachum sings “A wife’s like a guinea in gold,/Stamped with the name of her spouse;/Now here, now there; is bought, or is sold;/And is current in every house” (Gay 51). Once Polly becomes married, she becomes all the more attractive to men, seeing as how now she is a woman of ‘experience’ and also has the added flavor of being ‘forbidden fruit’.
When all these opinions are taken together, one truth about marriage becomes clear. It is the system by which women were commodified. A woman, once married, was property, or guineas, or secrets, but nevermore a person. They became a thing their husband owned and had very little else to do but sit and be owned, bartered, or sold. The character of Polly stands in opposition to this idea of marriage, saying time and time again that she married Macheath not for position or for money, but purely for love. Through Polly Peachum, the reader is given a glance into the shifting definition of marriage at this time in history.
Bannet, Eve T. “The Marriage Act of 1753: “A Most Cruel Law for the Fair Sex”” Eighteenth-Century Studies 30.3 (1997): 233-54. Rpt. in The American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. 1997. Project MUSE. Web. 23 Jan. 2011. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/eighteenth-century_studies/v030/30.3bannet.html>.
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