Though set in the underworld of thievery, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera codifies a set of Marxist sexual politics in which marriage stands as the great equalizer of desire and power. An often aphoristic overview of the traditional power struggle between men and women frames a world in which marriage reduces the wooer's desire but raises his power by an equal degree through ownership as a husband. This commodity fetishism of the wife spurs, in turn, the external desire of potential suitors, restoring equilibrium to the scales of eros. I will argue that Macheath's eventual capture (disregarding his brief escape and ironically crowd-pleasing twist-ending) stems from the complications his insatiable desire, at the expense of an all-consuming greed, introduces to a capitalistic society based on indirectly equitable gender relations.
Though the opera contains stereotypical evaluations of sought-after virgins, Gay moves beyond this pat system by exploring the source of their appeal in monetary terms. Air V, sung by Mrs. Peachum, equates the virgin with raw, yet to be coined material: "A maid is like the golden ore, / Which hath guineas intrinsical in't, / Whose worth is never known before / It is tried and impressed in the Mint" (I.v). Note the seeming contradiction in that "tried" means "refined" or "purified"; the virgin must undergo some sort of transmutation as she is debauched. The currency conceit, which threads throughout the opera, here is an example of what Marx calls the use-value of an object, which is, essentially, "[T]he utility of a thing" (Marx 421). The virgin is valuable, and her use-value high, because she possesses a heretofore unknown sexual utility. W...
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...s, for his symbolic castration is not so much Gay's comment on Macheath's immorality, of which everyone in the opera is culpable, but on his uncompromising sexual greediness in a society that functions only when the libido and the purse hold each other in check. Whether this is an attack on Macheath's philosophy or on society at large is unclear, although the Beggar's final statement, if not taken as parody, favors the latter: "'Twould have shown that the lower sort of people have their vices in a degree as well as the rich: and that they are punished for them" (III.xvi).
Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of
Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press).
Gay, John. The Beggar's Opera. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
Marx, Karl. Selected Writings. Ed. David McLellan. Oxford UP.
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