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Plot Summary of "The Beggar's Opera"


"The Beggar's Opera" by John Gay is a satirical piece of theater first performed in 1728. Even though it is called an opera, the songs are arranged as ballads rather than operatic scores, and the content not only pokes fun at the real operas popular with the English upper class at the time, but also summarizes in an amusing way the double standards and bigotry of 18th-century politics and society.

The Marriage

Peachum, a shady character with his feet planted on both sides of the law, determines who should be sent to the gallows and who should be saved through bribes. His wife, a prostitute, listens to his litany of crime and debauchery and defends one of her favorite customers, when news breaks that their daughter Polly has married a notorious robber. Peachum is displeased with the arrangement since he will lose the services of his daughter, who is involved in his own dubious business dealings. He soon hatches plans with his wife about how to profit from the marriage by murdering the newlywed husband so that Polly can inherit his wealth.

Capture

While the older Peachums are out, looking for Macheath to be killed, the daughter hides her husband. She then aids his escape but not before demanding assurances that he really loves her since she is suspicious over his womanizing. Macheath flees to a bar, where he is propositioned by several women with good manners but bad habits, including stealing and the occasional robbery. He realizes too late that some of the women are playing on the Peachum team and is subsequently captured and lead to Newgate Prison, where another of his sweethearts awaits him. Newgate Prison is operated by Lockit, an associate of Peachum with equal corrupt affinities. His daughter Lucy, however, is deeply in love with Macheath and claims to have received a marriage proposal from the robber, when Polly arrives and states she is already married to him.

Escape

When Polly leaves, pulled away by her father, Macheath must use all his powers of seduction to convince Lucy that he is not married to Polly, and she finally agrees to help him flee the prison by stealing the keys. Macheath goes straight to a gambling den, where he is spotted immediately by one of Peachum's lady spies. In the meantime, both Polly's and Lucy's respective fathers negotiate their share of Macheath's fortune, which is to be divided once the man is hanged. Peachum's spy arrives and tells them of Macheath's latest hiding place.

Re-Capture and Almost Execution

When Polly and Lucy meet to settle their disagreement over Macheath, Lucy tries to poison her rival but fails. News arrives that Macheath has been recaptured, and the girls rush to prison to plead with their respective fathers for the bandit's life. However, more women arrive and claim to be married to Macheath. The bandit, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of wives, is happy to be hanged. As he is lead away, a beggar enters the stage and declares to the audience that from a moral standpoint Macheath should die, but as audiences have a tendency to demand happy endings, Macheath has to be acquitted. Macheath returns and declares that he really was only ever married to Polly and declares his intentions of staying with her.

About the Author

Based in the U.K., Petra Turnbull has been working as a journalist since 1989. Her articles on the film and book trades have been published in "Screen International," "Dagens Naringsliv," "Film Magasinet" and other Scandinavian newspapers and magazines. She now manages her own book shop. Turnbull holds degrees in law and economics from Goethe University, Germany and Oslo Business School in Norway.

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