Debra Leissner (Arlington, Texas):
Alliance, Filiation, and Gay's Farewell to Merry Olde England in The Beggar's Opera
William Hogarth, "The Beggar's Opera Burlesqued", 1728
Since The Beggar's Opera was first staged in 1728, critics of John Gay's play have chiefly concentrated on concerns about the play's morality, on speculation about its political representations, and on its satire of Whig politics, social upheaval and Italian opera. Recent approaches have aimed at the philosophical underpinnings of the play and at its capitalistic aspects.1 However significant such topics and the responses they have generated may be, these critical lenses through which Gay's drama have so far been viewed can obstruct our ability to see beyond local issues; particularly, attempts to identify politicians according to their supposed characterizations in the play, especially representations of Robert Walpole, have proved messy, and none of these approaches suggest the wider scope of psychological, economical, and anthropological angles that I explore here. I propose that in The Beggar's Opera, Gay not only acknowledges the ascendancy of capitalism but the ways in which it was appropriating preceding cultural economies, which Gay casts in a nostalgic light, explaining in part the popularity of Macheath as an archetype of those economies.
Specifically, Gay dramatizes the evolution that capitalism instigates on two fundamental economic indicators: alliance and filiation. The evolution of these indicators finds its strongest representation in the evolution of Macheath - and through Macheath, all of England - from a type of noble savage to a fully oedipalized subject of a capitalist economy. Oedipal psychology, with its emphasis on lack and its prohibition of incest, also provides a paradigm through which to view the linguistic ambiguities that several critics have called attention to generally in Gay's work and which particularly animate The Beggar’s Opera. Gay aligns these ambiguities with contradictions inherent in capitalism itself to illustrate the ways in which the abuse of language and the new economy go hand in hand, scrambling meaning and the social order all at once. However, unlike other satirists of the period, Gay seems to sense that resistance to these changes is futile and ultimately surrenders the notion that English society can return to the familiar practices of bygone cultures.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari explain that economic evolutions within civilizations can be understood in terms of changes in the ways in which civilizations think about alliance and filiation. In anthropological terms, alliance refers not just to marriage but to the myriad relationships that marriages generate, and which form the archetype for most other alliances; further, alliance legitimates filiation and delineates kinship, using women as units of economic exchange, about which more later. The infrastructure of primitive and feudal cultures cohered latitudinally through alliances and longitudinally through filiation, first tribally, where different families were allied through marriage to form communities, and later nationally, where the same marital arrangements attempted to ally nations, theoretically, at least. Similarly, the economies of primitive cultures functioned through the equal exchange stipulated by alliances, coding legitimate relationships by inscriptions made directly on the body. In feudal cultures, the economy functioned through the State, which maintained but overcoded many of the primitive codes; or, put another way, it appropriated all of the old alliances, overcoding them with an alliance to the State through oaths and written laws rather than physical forms of inscription. Claude Lévi-Strauss can thus declare that "The rules of kinship and marriage are not made necessary by the social state. They are the social state itself" (490). To form an alliance, then, with someone to whom you were related - that is, to commit incest - was, as Lévi-Strauss puts it, "socially absurd before it was morally culpable" (485).
Just as the State assimilated primitive codes and alliances, preserving some and eliminating others, so capitalism assimilates primitive and feudal codes while currency mimics past models of alliance and filiation to represent relationships between commercial capital, financial capital, and industrial capital, as well as to dictate which types of capital can form alliances and which cannot. Thus alliance and filiation, as Deleuze and Guattari argue, "no longer pass through people but through money" (263-64). Ellen Meiksins Wood has observed what she considers a paradox implicit in the transition from feudalism to capitalism; she sees capitalism as "hostile to the kind of ideology that justified the feudal order" and its Great Chain of Being, yet "the special needs of capitalism were met by reinforcing old ideologies" (Pristine 37). What seems to be a reinforcement, however, is actually an appropriation, the timing of which is explained by Albert O. Hirschmann, who proposes that the transition from feudal economies to capitalism was encouraged as a way to replace fractured religious associations as a stabilizing force in society:
as a result of the increasing frequency of war and civil war in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries [...] the search was on for a behavioral equivalent for religious precept, for new rules of conduct and devices that would impose much needed discipline and constraints on both rulers and ruled, and the expansion of commerce and industry was thought to hold much promise in this regard. (129-30)
Thus capitalism functions not merely as an economic movement, but as a catalyst for social change as well. Hirschmann claims that "the diffusion of capitalist forms owed much to an equally desperate search for a way of avoiding society's ruin [his emphasis], permanently threatening at the time because of precarious arrangements for internal and external order," which amounts to an economic model of social salvation, primarily espoused in England by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, in answer to Thomas Hobbes' vision of anarchy in the absence of an absolute monarchy. Ian Donaldson sees The Beggar's Opera as Gay's response to this debate; judging by his metaphors, however, Gay also seems to have been answering the concerns of Benedict de Spinoza, who worried that private ownership of real property would create, as Hirschmann summarizes it, "unresolvable disputes" in which "members of the same community are necessarily involved in a situation where one man's gain is another man's loss," and so Spinoza proposed eliminating such forms of ownership (75). Put this way, we can see in property relations an abstraction of the primitive form of the incest model in which one man prevents the exchange between families of property in the form of women by keeping them for himself - his gain being another man's loss - a metaphorical transformation from the actual act of incest itself to its capitalistic overcoding. By promoting "movable over fixed capital," Hirschmann notes that Spinoza hoped to create "a network of mutual obligations, which would reinforce the ties binding society together," a function formerly performed in the alliances created by marriage, now being overcoded by capitalism.
In The Beggar's Opera, Gay creates a nostalgic representation of pre-capitalist England by associating his hero, Macheath, with England's primitive and feudal cultural economies through Macheath's name and title. In an example of the earliest type of coding, MacHeath's body is metaphorically "inscribed" by name in filiation with English territory as the "son of the heath," a name of the earth, which, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, would have been literally inscribed in the flesh in primitive days as a way of creating a collective memory for man (192-93). Therefore, in a nationalistic sense, Gay reminds his audience of their heritage by uniting them in kinship with the primitive earth through MacHeath. As a representative of primitive England, MacHeath is precapitalistic and therefore not oedipalized. Deleuze and Guattari contend that oedipalization is a byproduct, possibly even a prerequisite, of capitalistic psychology, creating the sense of lack that fuels the desire upon which capitalism operates. Gay demonstrates Macheath's pre-capitalistic attitude toward money when Mrs. Peachum informs her husband that Macheath was "cheerful and agreeable" upon learning that the bank had stopped payment on notes he left with her (1.4.43-46), so he appears unmotivated by money primarily, which he loses regularly at "Marybone and the chocolate-houses" (1.4.54). When Peachum states that Macheath "will risk anything for money" (1.8.14), he mistakenly applies his own values to Macheath, whose regard for money is secondary to his regard for women, of whom he says "money is not so strong a cordial for the time" (2.3.23-24). Macheath's risky behavior reflects desires fueled by primitive passions in that he takes what he desires and feels no sense of lack. "I love the sex" (2.3.2), he declares, which is usually taken to mean women generally but can also be read as simply loving sex itself as a way to recognize and satisfy primitive urges. Sven M. Armens compares Macheath's attitude toward women to " 'natural man,' as promiscuous as the beasts and as selfish. He must satisfy his all-consuming sexual drive at whatever cost to others." (140). Contrast this with Filch's attitude toward his duty to impregnate the women of the gang so they can "plead their belly" and avoid hanging (3.3.4-8), which Filch does purely for the sake of business. For the unoedipalized Macheath, desire is satisfied, not repressed.
Further, Macheath functions as a referent to the ways in which societal relationships evolved from tribalism to feudalism and, ultimately, to capitalism. In "Macheath," Gay conjures an image of Celtic tribalism ("Mac") associated with the landed status of feudalism ("heath"), thereby reconciling two economic cultures in one character. Macheath's expendability as Peachum's highwayman also suggests the ways in which feudal exchange between freemen and lords had evolved, as pledges of service freely rewarded with land came to be conditioned upon the receipt of land for service. The personal relationship between freeman and lord diminished as the value of property ownership grew, which Gay represents in the play as the kind of depersonalization that makes it possible for Peachum to peach Macheath. F.J. West notes that this detachment "most obviously [...] happened over the question of heritability" (55). In "Mac," Gay indicates an inheritance of the "heath," an irrefutable right to the land, or at least a traditional one, so that, as West concludes, "the land was burdened with service, not the man" (57). The ways in which personal relationships were displaced by material possessions during feudalism, suggested in Macheath’s name, provides a precedent for the capitalistic practices that followed.
In addition to the ways in which feudalism overcoded primitive economies to appropriate them for the state, Gay overcodes MacHeath's primitive filiation to the earth with his military title, "Captain," a self-styled association with signifiers of authority linking Macheath to England's feudal past and its changing ideas about property rights. We learn from Peachum that "the captain looks upon himself in the military capacity, as a gentleman by his profession" (1.8.32-34), which may not be as satiric as it sounds. J.J. Jusserand reports of the relationship between highwaymen, lords, and the military during the days of Edward III and Richard II, when knights and lords such as Sir Robert de Rideware, in the company of their squires, were often in the habit of accosting wealthy travelers on the road and relieving them of their goods at sword point. Jusserand claims that it became a "custom" of these lords to consider themselves "as above the common law," and that such practices, particularly as they were carried out with squires who wore the colors of their lord, "contributed largely to render the barons' wars of this period embittered and bloody" (147-48). So what at first may be easiest to see as Gay's re-creation in Macheath of eighteenth-century highwaymen such as Jack Sheppard is, in a less immediate sense, his attempt to create nostaglia in his audience by imagining an amorphous historical figure designed to serve as a sentimental reminder of the pre-capitalistic past in contrast to a capitalistic future.
Gay relates Macheath's associations with land - that is, immovable property - to his and his gang's attitudes about moveable property. The distribution of the night's take demonstrates that much of what the gang steals is not money but handkerchiefs, watches, jewelry, and other moveable property. While Gay seems to have gone to some trouble to represent eighteenth-century highwaymen accurately, the attitudes toward moveable property that his characters demonstrate connect these items with primitive societies, for whom, Maurice Godelier argues, these kinds of treasures "were not capital and rarely functioned within these societies as a form of currency, i.e., as a means of commercial exchange" but were "to show off, to give away or redistribute" in order to create, continue, or heal social relationships; nonetheless, they "possessed an exchange value" [his emphasis] (128). Their exchange value promoted the good of the community, a quality that Gay suggests when Matt of the Mint philosophizes that
A covetous fellow, like a jackdaw, steals what he was never made to enjoy, for the sake of hiding it. These are the robbers of mankind, for money was made for the free-hearted and generous; and where is the injury of taking from another what he hath not the heart to make use of? (30-36).
Another way in which ideas about property rights changed from feudalism to capitalism is summarized by C. B. Macpherson: in capitalism, property confers "a right to dispose of, or alienate, as well as to use; and it is a right which is not conditional on the owner's performance of any social function" (109). This outlook divorces property from its communal value, and this, perhaps more than any other aspect of capitalism, seems to worry Gay and his contemporaries.
Macheath's gang also relies on medieval codes of warfare and expresses feudal attitudes about its proceeds, through which Gay further portrays changing conceptions of property rights in the eighteenth century. Jemmy Twitcher's declaration that "What we win is ours by law of arms and right of conquest" is pre-capitalistic and feudal (2.1.13-14). When Ben Budge expresses an anti-capitalist philosophy in the play by claiming that "We are for a just partition of life, for every man hath a right to enjoy life" (2.2.27-28), we can understand MacPherson's assertion that
In pre-capitalist England, property had generally been seen as a right to a revenue (whether in the form of services or produce or money) rather than as a right to specific material things, and had not been seen as the material things themselves (110).
The proceeds of the gang's labors apparently go to Peachum after Macheath has dispensed the gang's share, a feudal arrangement in which everyone is entitled by "right" to a share in the wealth, or commonwealth - a right in revenue--and which Gay seems to see as equitable to all.
Under this system, the gang cannot understand why they are considered criminals. However, Macpherson explains that the state began to protect an individual's right "to the disposal as well as the use of things" (111), particularly as property came to be seen as "rights in material things rather than as rights to revenues" (112). So, when Jemmy Twitcher asks "Why are the laws leveled at us?" (2.2.11-12), he questions a shift in the old system of a laborer's right to revenue earned as a product of the land; hence, Gay could not have selected a better criminal activity for Macheath than highwayman, where revenue was earned on the common property of the road, shared among the gang, and the "profits" given to the feudal lord, here represented in Peachum, to dispose of as he sees fit. Jemmy Twitcher is really decrying the proliferation of what is seen as criminal in the eighteenth century, when, as Michel Foucault puts it, "people were no longer fighting against [...] agents of injustice [...] but against the law itself and the justice whose task it was to apply it" (274). What had once been allowed was now prohibited: the enemy was no longer a bad minister or an evil magistrate, but the legal system as a whole that protected new ideas about rights in property. And these laws not only disturbed "criminals," but the gentry as well: Isaac P. Kramnick notes that the complaints that Gay's characters make are "also a characteristic theme of the gentry discontent, an attack on law and lawyers as agents of the new artificial world brought by financial capitalism" (229). The situation was not so much that criminal activity had increased, but that the number of activities considered to be criminal under the new property laws had.
Gay recognizes in this play the ways in which feudal values of honor and property were being subsumed by capitalism's apparent lack of values. He implies the gang's faith in the chivalric code when they claim to be "above the fear of death," "sound, and true," courageous, industrious, and loyal to the end (2.1.15-20). These "traditional bonds which naturally held men together," as Kramnick puts it, were threatened by the ability of money to affect a "depersonalization of society" and the destruction of "gentry England" (73). The popularity of Macheath can be postulated as the audience's reaction against this depersonalization. Gay's audience reflects what Foucault calls "an ambiguity in popular attitudes" in which criminals who preyed upon the upper classes benefitted from "a wave of sympathy," since their deeds seemed to the population as "descending directly from old struggles" while the so-called "criminals" maintained the codes of the old value system (83). Indeed, Gays audience may have responded to what Wood calls the emergence of
a discourse which opposed the moral qualities of landed property - the ancient ideals of duty and responsibility which are the obligations of hierarchy, rank and deference - to the commercial values of profit" (Pristine 114)
Gay conveys Macheath's relationship with his gang as a feudal social alliance enhanced by medieval codes of "courage," "honor" and "truth"; further, Macheath distributes the proceeds of their efforts reciprocally without "avarice or injustice" in order to maintain those social relationships, and, in return, he enjoys a "fixed confidence" in his gang (2.2.13-21), a confidence that Gay will explode by the end of the play.
Gay's sentimental portrayal of medieval times also emerges in Macheath's attitude toward the women with whom he sports and with whom he maintains at least the appearance of reciprocity. The romances popular in the eighteenth century emphasized medieval concepts of chivalry; Polly trusts Macheath's love because in the romances that he lent her, "none of the great heroes were ever false in love" (1.13.17-18). However, the wives who materialize at the end of the play point toward Macheath's chivalry as merely form without substance. Macheath's false alliances correspond with those to which Barbara Tuchman refers in her history of the fourteenth century, where, in a similar encounter between several medieval ladies and their supposed knight errant, Tuchman writes that "When they taxed him with his falsity [...] he was in no way abashed, saying, 'For at that time I spake with each of you, I loved her best that I spake with and thought truly the same' " (68). MacHeath's pre-capitalistic, pre-oedipal sexuality reveals what Deleuze and Guattari call a state of "infantile promiscuity," where "everything is permitted until the age when the young man in turn submits to the principle of pairing that regulates the social production of children" (72). Throughout the play, Macheath's production of children is asocial: his only "principle" is to avoid forming alliances with his children's mothers. Lucy herself acknowledges the asocial nature of her pregnancy when she longs "to be made an honest woman" (2.9.85-86). However, like Tuchman's knight errant, Macheath compromises the meaning of honor and language at the same time when he tells Lucy that in courting Polly he said "a thousand things to her (as all gentlemen do) that mean nothing" (2.9.45-46). Here the failure of honor in men corresponds to the failure of a very different definition of honor in women, and both to the failure of language to mean what it says. These failures point also toward the failure of traditional alliance and filiation; Lucy, as well as Macheath's other women, are unallied with Macheath, and, although Gay does not have him do so directly in the play, Macheath would undoubtedly have denied filiation with Lucy's child and with all of his others. In a 1691 essay, John Locke blames the gentry for much of its own undoing:
ill husbandry, neglect of government and religion, depraved education, introduce debauchery and living beyond means and debts increase. This is generally the cause why men part with their land" (qtd. in Kramnick, 61).
Gay's portrayal of Macheath as a rake may owe much to the self-destruction of the gentry, whose failure to uphold traditional values made them easier to convert to capitalism.
To use Macheath as a symbol of England's evolution toward capitalism, Gay must first oedipalize him. The economic demands of capitalism and the psychological demands of oedipalization that support it dictate that Macheath must eventually submit to an exclusive alliance. The freedoms that Macheath enjoys with his women and the reciprocity that he enjoys within his gang begin to disintegrate, which, according to Godeleir, is what happened to primitive societies as both wealth and families united and privatized (74). Polly recognizes her investment in Macheath when she tells her father that in flirting with Macheath, "a girl who cannot grant some things, and refuse what is most material will make but a poor hand of her beauty, and soon be thrown upon the common" (1.7.8-10), which William Empson sees as a possible intention to "reform Macheath and make him an honest shopkeeper" (240). Here Polly uses her looks as capital that she invests in Macheath in order to transform him; her risk of being "thrown upon the common" is a primitive fate indicating a failure to secure Macheath as her private property.
Macheath's process of submission and oedipalization begins with his indiscriminate freedoms with women and ends with his deprivation of freedom at the hands of Peachum. Deleuze and Guattari note that the oedipalization process begins with a pre-oedipal
stage that must be surmounted in the direction of an evolutive integration (toward the depressive position under the reign of the complete object), or organized in the direction of a structural integration (toward the position of a despotic signifier, under the reign of the phallus.) (74).
The latter is what takes place in the tavern when Jenny Diver and the other ladies betray MacHeath under the direction of Peachum, the despot-cum-capitalist who represents what Jacques Lacan refers to as the Law of the Father, or the authority of the despot. Peachum severs Macheath as a pre-oedipal subject from the feminine influences that Lacan identifies with what he calls the Imaginary register of consciousness, and, by removing Macheath's pistols, forces him into the Symbolic register that Lacan identifies with law and lack. MacHeath knows that Peachum is not to be trusted; nonetheless, he acknowledges to his men the power that Peachum holds over them by declaring that "business cannot go on without him. He is a man who knows the world, and is a necessary agent to us" (2.2.29-31). In their pre-oedipal relationship, Macheath is allied to Peachum as a primitive subject is allied to the feudal State, an alliance that arises out of what Deleuze and Guattari call the
great movement of deterritorialization that subordinates all the primitive filiations to the despotic machine [...] on the other hand it maintains the old territorialities, integrates them as parts or organs of production in the new machine (197-98).
In Peachum's function as capitalist, he relates to Macheath and the gang as what Foucault calls "an agent for the illegality of the dominant groups" by his control over " 'useful delinquency,' or 'controlled illegality' " (279). Peachum’s connections to the State identify him as what Hirschmann calls "a transformer, a civilizing medium" (16). With these alliances in place, Macheath occupies a transformational position on the cusp of oedipalization.
As an oedipalizing agent, Peachum books accounts at the beginning of the play, which represents his role as the overcoder, ensuring the continuity of the enterprise by perpetuating financially successful alliances and terminating alliances with those who resist coding. Peachum saves Black Moll because she is "very active and industrious" (1.2.67). Tom Gagg is a "lazy dog" whose execution nets Peachum a surplus value of "forty pounds," which he inscribes when he books him (1.2.10-13). In his role as capitalist, Peachum resembles a father-figure, enabling the gang to operate by acting as a buffer between it and the new capitalistic economy. But in this same role, it is he who will enforce the Lacanian Law of the Father as soon as he recognizes a threat to his authority, which amounts to an enaction of absolutism. For Wood, this movement toward absolutism would represent the transition that makes the separation between feudalism and capitalism possible in the eighteenth century by "displacing" feudal power "upward," thus enabling market forces to chart their own course (37). Gay symbolizes Macheath's oedipalization when the ladies whom Peachum has employed to capture him appropriate and brandish MacHeath's pistols before he is taken prisoner, a phallic precursor to having his freedom cut off by Peachum. In having Macheath arrested, Gay links the audience to Macheath's punishment for crimes committed as a warning to them, a placing-on-notice, as Foucault notes: "The art of punishing [...] can succeed only if it forms part of a natural mechanics"; it must establish "a complex of obstacle-signs that may subject the movement of the forces to a power relation," so that for those who contemplate committing a crime, "the idea of the offense will be enough to arouse the sign of the punishment" (104). When Peachum severs Macheath's freedom, he initiates both a feeling of lack in Macheath as well as a sense of the forbidden, a feeling shared, as Foucault would have it, by the audience with whom Macheath is united.
In the economical language of capitalism and the social language of Oedipus, the forbidden is incest. Lévi-Strauss argues that marriage, to this day, is and has always been an economic transaction between men–a father and a potential husband–in which a female is given or lost out of one family in exchange for a female from another family. This type of reciprocal alliance allows for further alliances as in-law relationships are formed, alliances around which entire societies cohere. Within this structure of alliances, two forms of incest can then arise: the man who marries his own daughter or sister, or the man who commandeers a large number of women, thereby taking them out of circulation. Macheath is guilty of the latter kind, as Mrs. Peachum notes when she says of Macheath that she is "in doubt if he hath not two or three wives already" (1.9.17-18), a suspicion confirmed when no fewer than four wives, children in tow, present themselves at Macheath's hanging. While this situation may sound more like polygamy than incest, Lévi-Strauss points out that under these conditions it is possible to commit "at least social incest, if it is true that incest, in the broadest sense of the word, consists in obtaining by oneself, and for oneself, instead of by another, and for another" (489). Ultimately, in order to be integrated into capitalistic society, Macheath will have to rectify this situation.
Gay connects incest with capitalism when Peachum himself is found guilty of committing economic incest by attempting to keep his daughter Polly for himself. If capitalism begins at at the point when money becomes capable of producing more money, then Deleuze and Guattari are right to say that at this point, "capital ceases to be a capital of alliance to become a capital of filiation . . . It enters into relations with itself" (227). Money takes on the same relations with itself that people used to have with each other, albeit Gay represents these relations through his characters. Peachum discourages any sort of alliance for Polly because Polly is already allied with him in the same sense that Mrs. Peachum is allied with him. Mr. and Mrs. Peachum are business partners married in name only, as Peachum himself notes when he scolds Polly for wanting to marry Macheath: "Do you think your mother and I should have lived comfortably so long together, if ever we had been married?" (1.8.15-17). Although Peachum and Mrs. Peachum are not in a traditional alliance, Polly is still their daughter; once she starts making money for them and Peachum refuses to let her marry, their relationship becomes an alliance as well. Here Gay provides a classic example of a self-interested alliance trumping a traditional form of alliance and filiation, that, when applied to Polly, creates the financial form of incest in which capital generates capital.
Not coincidentally, Polly's potential alliance with Macheath threatens the Peachums' economic interests and conjures the ghost of Oedipus himself. Before marriage, Polly is "as profitable as at the bar of a Temple coffee-house" (1.4.84-85); afterward, they would be "in her husband's power," as Peachum notes, for her "husband hath the absolute power over all a wife's secrets but her own" (1.4.90-92). This power is what Peachum fears most: it situates him as a latter-day King Laius who attempts to have Macheath, here displaced from son to son-in-law, murdered out of fear that Macheath will murder him first. Capitalism sanitizes Oedipus, as Peachum seems to acknowledge in response to Polly's accusation of murder:
What hath murder to do in the affair? [...] the captain knows that as 'tis his employment to rob, so 'tis ours to take robbers; every man in his business. So that there is no malice in the case. (1.10.38-45).
As Gay seems to see it, however, the malice in this case is both economic and social: Peachum's form of incest with Polly disrupts traditional alliances that Gay would like to protect. Lévi-Strauss points out that
each marriage is the end of a movement which, as soon as this point has been reached, should be reversed and develop in a new direction. If the movement ceases, the whole system of reciprocity will be disturbed (488).
The "whole system" is what concerns Gay: he represents all of Peachum's relationships as sets of exploitive, temporary alliances easily broken. For Peachum to satisfy his self-interest and sense of security, no reciprocity exists; with notions of nobility out of the way, he either profits from the alliance or he ends it, very often at the gallows, which Gay seems to see as an invitation to Hobbes' chaotic society: a one-way system of advantage for the self-interested.
Although Kramnick has already argued that Gay's play can be read as a vehicle for the ideas of Lord Bolingbroke socially, economically, and politically, he leaves the door open to anthropological claims. Kramnick posits that for Bolingbroke, the principles of contracts and business dealings had been established long ago and "seemed implicit in feudal oaths of allegiance that detailed the reciprocal duties of king and vassal" (100). Gay expresses his - and Bolingbroke's - fears that self-interested, temporary commercial alliances will affect not only the economy, but will replace permanent social alliances as well, unravelling cultural systems it took centuries to build. Gay represents this most succinctly in the Peachum's arrangement. As Kramnick notes, Bolingbroke saw
taboos against incest as the recognition that in 'natural political society' whatever tended to diminish the reverence for parents diminished their authority and thus threatened to 'dissolve the order of those little commonwealths' (92).
Society, for Bolingbroke and Gay, has been formed since time out of mind from the union of "different families": "Civil governments were formed not by the concurrence of individuals, but by the associations of families" (95-6). If, as Lévi-Strauss argues, "marriage is the archetype of exchange" (483), then, as Gay represents it in his play, this form of reciprocal, exogamous exchange has indeed broken down, and Gay is also representing in Peachum's relationship to Polly an economically incestuous, endogamous relationship. In classifying marriage as an economic transaction between men, Lévi-Strauss speaks of it as "an encounter between nature and culture, between alliance and kinship [...] whose meeting is doubtless merely a prelude to their substitution for one another" so that "marriage verges on incest" (489). Gay portrays this prelude in the triangle formed by Peachum, Mrs. Peachum, and Polly, in which "nature and culture," "alliance and kinship" transcend physical representations to form economic ones. Here capitalism is economic incest, and Polly is filiative capital; here the transition to an oedipal, capitalist society is complete. And, as Deleuze and Guattari argue, "the family becomes a microcosm, suited to expressing what it no longer dominates" (264). In these representations, Gay exposes capitalism as a system on the verge of allowing man to revert to a Hobbesian nature at the expense of culture, the antithesis of what Kramnick observes in Bolingbroke's natural-society-as-political-society. (92)
As culture and the relationships that had thus far held it together became commercialized, Gay realized an associated concern: the destabilization of language as a set of codes that affixes value to relationships. Armens notes that Gay had protested this abuse before: in Epistle to my ingenious and worthy Friend, W[illiam] L[owndes], Esq., Author of that celebrated treatise in folio, called the LAND-TAX BILL, Gay bemoans "the distortion of the use of words, instruments of inspiration and knowledge, to make money [...] while the real use of words for the rational communication of values is neglected" and that this "constitutes the basic perversion of society satirized in this epistle" (117). Not until the success of The Beggar's Opera, however, was Gay able to communicate the ways in which an economic system negotiates the value of words and the meaning of language.
Gay returns again and again to feudal codes as the cement holding together Macheath's alliance with his gang. Macheath tells Matt of the Mint that "I have a fixed confidence in you all, as men of honor, and as such I value and respect you" (2.2.21-23). He values them because he trusts their words and actions to define their relationship to him, so when Jemmy Twitcher peaches Macheath after his escape, he declares that he is "surprised" and takes it as "plain proof that the world is all alike, and that even our gang can no more trust one another than other people" (3.14.3-7). The air that Peachum sings at the beginning of the play presents sets of confused filiations and mixed alliances to set the tone for Gay’s theme of destabilized language and destabilized relationships, for "each neighbor abuses his brother" and "Whore and rogue they call husband and wife" (1.1.2-4). Gay, through Peachum, associates these destabilizations of language with the contradictory nature of self-interested capitalism:
A lawyer is an honest employment; so is mine. Like me, too, he acts in a double capacity, both against rogues and for 'em; for 'tis but fitting that we should protect and encourage cheats, since we live by 'em. (1.1.9-13).
In Peachum's capitalist world, gentlemen are murderers: he asks Mrs. Peachum, "if business cannot be carried on without it, what would you have a gentleman do?" (1.4.32-33). Later he tells her that "money [...] is the true fuller's earth for reputations" (1.9.8-9), so now currency has replaced both actions and words as the stuff reputations are made of. The play abounds with such disjunctions of words and meanings.
Beyond being the bread and butter of the satirist, these ambiguities speak of Gay's resignation to a cultural revolution he knows he is powerless to stop. Ambiguities pepper Gay's earlier works, so it seems that he merely replicated the cultural ambiguities of his age. R.S. Neale points out that
owners of landed property like the Duke of Chandos and William Pulteney were also stockjobbers, rentiers, placemen, and soldiers. They were also entrepreneurs. Where they were not all of these things themselves, their younger sons were and their daughters generally married other men who were. (6)
Under these circumstances, it becomes apparent that part of Gay's success with The Beggar's Opera lies in its recognition of reality, particularly in the loss of linguistic stability. Deleuze and Guattari argue that such a "failure of codes" parallels the "phenomena of shifting of meaning in the case of schizophrenics and the mechanisms of ever increasing disharmony and discord at every level of industrial society," which they identify with the limits that capitalistic flows of desire continually displace and reincorporate, recode, and repress (34). Gay would have inherently distrusted this schizophrenic displacement of meaning as harkening back to the madness of the Civil War and the Reformation period and to the Whig party's amalgamation of interests.
Gay demonstrates, perhaps as a warning, the ways in which self-interest masquerades as societal interest through the abuse of language. Peachum accuses Lockit of "unfair proceeding" and warns him that "Business is at an end - if once we act dishonourably," to which Lockit replies, "He that attacks my honour, attacks my livelihood." The argument ends with Peachum's claim that settling their dispute " 'Tis our mutual interest; 'tis for the interest of the world we should agree" (2.10.32-66). The dependencies that, according to Kramnick, Bolingbroke saw as a natural relationship between the landed classes are here replaced with what Gay portrays as the unnatural relationship between Peachum and Lockit, who depend upon each other in the most nefarious sense of the term, using the power of the State to further their own economic operations. Their reconciliation is significant in light of Deleuze and Guattari's remarks that in a capitalist system, the State "is now subordinated to a field of forces whose flows it co-ordinates and whose autonomous relations of domination and subordination it expresses" (221). Capitalism cannot function without a stable government to serve the interests of business; hence the "interest of the world" signifies twice: "interest" as "well-being" and as "gain"; and "world" as "society" and as “capitalism."
The role of the State in capitalism, here personified by Lockit and concretized in Newgate, is to regulate the alliance and filiation of capital and to ensure that the natural tendency of capitalism toward a falling rate of profit without end meets with artificially created limits, according to Deleuze and Guattari (230-31). Gay supports this when he displaces the limits of meaning by decoding Macheath's alliances with his gang and his women, rendering Macheath, in turn, as surplus value, just like everyone that Peachum peaches. Macheath's stint in Newgate allows Gay to dramatize inadvertently an essential element in capitalistic production: antiproduction, in which, as Deleuze and Guattari point out, the state regulates productivity to
realize its supreme goal, which is to produce lack in the large aggregates, to introduce lack where there is always too much, by effecting the absorption of overabundant resources" (235).
By the end of the play, then, the state is prepared to execute its role as regulator by executing Macheath as surplus value, but at the last minute his "end" is displaced by Gay.
MacHeath's pardon amounts to the abolition of a primitive, finite debt by the state for which it substitutes marriage as an infinite debt. Macheath himself regards his death as "a debt - a debt on demand" and urges the State to "take what I owe. Contented I die" (3.11.77-78). The debt will be paid with his life and is for him, therefore, finite. The Beggar makes the announcement of Macheath's "reprieve" to "comply," as the Player notes, with the "taste of the town" (3.16.15-18), but as a practical matter, this reprieve could not have occurred without the State's approval. But his reprieve is conditional: he must be "brought back to his wives" (3.16.15-16), a fate worse than death for Macheath, who had insisted on hurrying his execution when presented earlier with four of these women and their children. Under capitalism, it is the function of the prison to "transform" its inmates, according to Foucault (although it does not begin to develop its transforming apparatus until later in the eighteenth century) (233), but in feudal days, "it was the task of the guilty man to bear openly his condemnation" (43). So the connection Gay makes between Macheath's reprieve and the requirement that he take a wife anticipates prison reform by several decades and presents it in evolutionary process. And, indeed, Macheath sees the stipulation to marry as a punishment:: "So it seems, I am not left to my choice, but must have a wife at last" (3.17.1-2). But what is his crime? Gay never mentions the charges brought against Macheath specifically, but we must assume it was thievery. Then, what has he stolen? Again, not mentioned, but by not mentioning it, Gay brings the entire audience in on the sentence. In oedipal terms, Macheath is guilty of social incest, and in order to avoid its repetition, he must select only one wife. Foucault explains the relationship between the capitalistic state and the prison when he writes of
the economy of the power to punish [...]. One must calculate a penalty in terms not of the crime, but of its possible repetition. One must take into account not the past offence, but the future disorder (92-93).
The future is what concerns capitalism: Macheath is now oedipalized, his freedom restricted infinitely.
As a transformational, oedipalizing play, Macheath's crime is societal and all of England must be discouraged from fulfilling its desires to the point that capitalism cannot generate lack in the masses. In recognizing the crime's affect on "future disorder," Foucault analyzes what Gay dramatizes: that "the penalty must have its most intense effects on those who have not committed the crime" (95). By replacing his death sentence, Macheath's marriage becomes a "debt of existence" (197-98), with which, as Deleuze and Guattari argue, the State replaces primitive "blocks of mobile and finite debts" (197-98). His marriage repays an infinite debt (it replaces the infinity of his death), as he seems to understand when he tells Polly that he will take her over the others: "And for life, you slut, - for we were really married" (3.17.10-11). This punishment is what Foucault would refer to as "economically ideal," the freewheeling highwayman reduced to "slavery," the idea of which is "more terrifying than the idea of death," because it is perpetual, "divided into as many moments as he has left to live" (95). Thus Gay locates the point of application of Oedipus: not physical, but psychological, and he does not so much make of the prison, as Foucault puts it, "a sort of artificial and coercive theatre" as he makes of the theatre a sort of artificial and coercive prison (251). And so ends Macheath's period of "infantile promiscuity"; he enters into the "principle of pairing that regulates the social production of children" which confines him to the oedipal structures of capitalism. He is no longer what Peachum calls a "great man" (1.11.7), but now what Foucault calls a "normal" or "calculable" man (193).
The much-discussed ending of the play suggests Gay's ultimate realization as a satirist that the evolution in English society that his drama chronicles is irreversible. Ian Bell, too, sees in the reprieve of Macheath and in the Beggar's urging to the audience that they "must have suppos'd they [the other criminals] were all either hang'd or transported," an "act of avoidance" in which "Gay simply makes all the problems prominent and still intractable" (90). The ambiguity in this play between what Gay portrays as the nobility of Macheath's up-front thievery and what Gay suggests as the more illegitimate type of capitalistic thievery he portrays in Peachum and Lockit may reflect his bitterness at his own South Sea Bubble losses, or, alternatively, what Armens sees as Gay's "social criticism of the poor man as artist" (52). If Gay sentimentalizes notions of a better, more honorable time, perhaps he does so because, as Armens concludes, Gay
dreaded [...] the coming of an era of outright materialism, the signs of which were overwhelmingly evident [...] such an era, lacking the old tried and true social and moral values, seemed right on top of them with its proofs of declining taste and art (126).
What Armens identifies as a town-and-country contrast in Gay's play goes further than place: it depends upon conceptions of codes from a time gone by, an older, more literal era in which words meant what they said, which Armens touches upon when he notes that at Macheath's hanging, Macheath speaks "of a code which of course depends for its existence on one's secret acceptance of it" and a "return to the simple but universal virtues which are basic to natural man" (222-223). Kramnick sees The Beggar’s Opera as the indictment of "an entire age [...] the gloom and nostalgia of Bolingbroke’s circle" (224).
Finally, Macheath is admired by Gay's audience because in psychoanalytic terms, Macheath is an unrepressed representative of the desiring unconscious of a nation. The success and appeal of The Beggar's Opera to the masses relies on its ability to release the audience’s repressed psychoses as oedipalized members of a capitalist society. These audiences responded readily to the unrepressed nature of McHeath as to the state of nature found in their collective memory of their primitive and feudal past. Thus Gay is enacting a transfer of cultures: from synchronic feudalism, in which Macheath tries to maintain old codes, to a diachronic capitalism, in which Peachum deactivates codes in what becomes a "going concern" - the always linear, futuristic needs of business in the new economy. The ambiguities that Gay exposes as being generated by capitalism fall short of constituting a warning to reform, however, since Gay seems vaguely aware–perhaps more so than other satirists of the period - that this economic evolution cannot be stopped; so Gay seems content, like the beggar, to play the role of observer to one of the largest cultural upheavals in history.
1 See Burgess for an opinion of who represents whom; see Bell for multiple representations of Walpole.
imes and Modern States. London: Verso, 1991.