The Beggar’s Opera: Use of Satire


The Beggar’s Opera was first performed in London at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in 1728.  The opera was a sensation, where it managed to draw a huge audience and had more than 62 performance before the end of 1728.  Through the opera, there was a new dramatic form where it inspired many works in the following years. The Opera incorporated the use of satire, which is defined as the use of ridicule (Ladd). Ballad operas such as The Beggars opera were satirical plays which used some opera conventions, without being recitative. The Beggars Opera is a ballad opera which intertwines a high class of the tunes in a popular style and incorporates the use of spoken dialogue. The Beggars opera was satirized with conventions of the imported Opera seria. 

  One of the most immediate and apparent targets of satire in the Opera was the Italian Opera, which was introduced in London in the first decade of the 18th century, where it became the touchstone if the lite culture. The Gay’s satire was exceedingly expensive, and too many of the English ears was inexplicable as well as bizarre (Melville)Gay, the composer of the Italian, capitalized on the lewd conduct of Double operatic satire in the Italian Operas tradition is integrated into the Opera. 

There is also satire in the explication of the corrupt regime led by Sir Robert Walpole, who was the incumbent prime minister then. Satirical performances were used to mock the leader, where Gay opts to use simple popular tunes that are a way of making what the British were of the belief that it was extremely virtuosic and artificial airs of Italian Opera. He opts to go for spoken dialogue over recitative in the entire Opera (Ladd). His main characters, who also are a reflection of his satirical approach, are bawds and thieves, instead of using kings and heroes of the Italian Opera. 

 Through the opera, Gay makes fun of the Italian Divas, who were much disliked then. The two, Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, were also known to be foes. The two were much hated since back in 1727, they had a fight on stage, where they got to scratch and pull each other’s hairs. These two rivals inspire Gay’s female characters, where the quarreling scenes are introduced, which is satirical. On top, if making fun of the Italian Opera the ballad opera provided new popularity for native music which were popular with the masses. 

  There was also the satirizing of Walpole and his government. Peachum, one of the significant characters, satirized Sir Robert Walpole. Peachum who was identified as a womanizer, thief, and double-dealer, wherein the end he stabbed Walpole, who was corrupt and also an adulterer (Dugaw). This showed the use of satire in campaigning against poor leadership of Walpole. He ultimately banned the sequel due to its criticism against his governance in a satirical way.  Through the use in the Ballad’s Opera of Satire, Gay was able to pressure the government and campaign against corruption by the leaders, hence the reaction from the leaders such as Walpole. This artistic expression gained popularity, and has hence been used by many of the subsequent operas, due to the levels of influence it had on the people and governments. 

Works Cited

Dugaw, Dianne. “Folklore and John Gay’s Satire.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 (1991): 515-533.

Ladd, H. ” John Gay’s Urban Aviary: Pastoral and Fabular Birds in The Beggar’s Opera .” Literary Imagination (2017): 19(2), 93-106.

Melville, L. Life and Letters of John Gay (1685-1732), Author of” The Beggar’s Opera”. Good Press, 2019.

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