One of the most striking elements of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera is, of course, the way music, and specifically the ballad form, is used to frame the story. Clearly satirizing the popularity of Italian opera in England during this period (which as Addison points out in The Spectator developed independently of an understanding of the Italian language or operatic forms), The Beggar’s Opera cleverly lampoons these conventions and satirizes the fashionable people who attend these events. This effect is not only created through the use of popular ballad tunes which the audience would have been familiar with, but also through the similarity of the material in the Opera to broadside ballads, which were widely available and popular throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century. These broadside ballads often celebrated the exploits of a rogue highwayman (such as Robin Hood) or scoundrel, and also framed important historical and political topics within popular forms. Finally, the transference of these broadside conventions into theater indicates the extent to which the rising popularity of print was altering other forms of cultural production.
The first and most striking similarity between broadside ballads and The Beggar’s Opera is the subject matter. Though broadside ballads dealt with a wide variety of subject material, certainly one of the most popular subjects was the rogue’s tale. The most popular of these rogues was, of course, the famous Robin Hood who famously stole from the rich to give to the poor and championed the causes of those persecuted by the powerful. Much like MacHeath in Gay’s Opera, the character of Robin Hood works to subvert and reverse social conventions that cast the wealthy and powerful as virtuous and the poor as criminals and thieves. In fact one Robin Hood ballad, titled “Robin Hood his Rescuing Will Stutly from the Sherriff and his Men,” is founded upon one of the key points of action in the Opera – an escape from prison by another rogue, Will Stutly:
When Robin Hood in the green Wood,
Derry, derry, down,
Under the green Wood Tree,
Tydings there game to him with speed,
Tydings for certainty:
Hey down, derry, derry down.
That Will Stutly surprized was,
And eke in prison lay,
Three Varlets that the Sherif had hir’d
Did likely him betray
When Robin Hood he heard the news
Lord he was grieved sore,
I to his merry Men said,
Who altogether swore
That Will Stutly should rescued be
And be brought back again,
Or else should many a gallant Wight
For his sake there be slain.
The ballad then proceeds to tell the story of how Robin and his Merry Men rescue Will Stutly and confound the Sherriff once again. The corrupt social order has been subverted and the rogue heroes escape. In The Beggar’s Opera, Gay makes it clear that all levels of society are equally corrupt and, because of this, it is unreasonable to persecute the roguish MacHeath, whose crimes do not even come close to those of the powerful. Like Will Stutly, he do is rescued from the hangman’s noose at the final hour. MacHeath is certainly no Robin Hood when it comes to virtue, but nevertheless his character represents a common broadside trope that works to subvert social order.
This interrogation of a social order that persecutes rogues like MacHeath while allowing people like Lockit and others in positions of power to go free is made explicit in one of MacHeath’s final songs, which is sung to the tune of Green Sleeves:
Since Laws were made for ev’ry Degree,
To curb vice in others, as well as me,
I wonder we han’t better Company,
Upon Tyburn Tree!
But Gold from Law can take out the Sting;
And if rich Men like us were to swing.
‘Twould thin the Land, such Numbers to string
Upon Tyburn tree!
Tyburn was the place in London where criminals were hanged. Thus, by suggesting that rich men and “better Company,” have just as much place there as him, MacHeath makes clear that the corruption of society extends from the highest orders down to the lowest and that rich men are now less thieves because they are rich.
A further interesting feature of this song is that it is set to one of the most famous of the ballad tunes, Green Sleeves – a tune that is still sung today. Though many different ballads were set to this tune during this time period, one of the most interesting is a 1688 broadside titled, “A New Song of Lulla By,” an innocent title that belies the deeply political content. The content of this ballad concerns one of the most controversial events of 1688 – the birth of James III or “the Old Pretender,” and the controversy over whether he was really the son of James II. The ballad portrays the birth as an elaborate Vatican plot to continue Catholic rule in England and includes a Pope who is irate that the plot has been discovered. Of course shortly after this James II was deposed and William and Mary placed on the throne but, nevertheless fears of a Jacobite rebellion continued throughout the first half of the eighteenth century and this was a distinct part of the political and social atmosphere at the time the Opera was produced.
Of course, it is impossible to know what associations Gay intended by choosing to set one of MacHeath’s most important songs to Green Sleeves and, as I stated, many different ballads were set to this tune. However, recognizing that the many ballad tunes used in The Beggar’s Opera have very specific broadside ballad associations for the audience of the eighteenth century, associations which have largely been lost to us, helps us to think about the way the text was viewed and received during its time. I would argue that the ballad tunes Gay picks are not chosen at random and were very likely meant to bring up specific cultural associations in the mind of the audience. Furthermore, the very textual materiality of the broadside, helps us to think about the ways in which print culture was altering the cultural productions and modes of thinking of society at large.
For more information on Broadside Ballads and access to a huge online collection of Ballads check out the English Broadside Ballad Archive hosted by UC Santa Barbara.