Analyze How Notions Of Taste


02 Nov 2017

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By way of introduction, let me explain that the 18th century was one in which exaltation of wit and reason came to the forefront of literature in the form of both Horatian and Juvenalian satires, which, through keen observation and sharp nimbleness of thought, exposed the superficial follies and moral corruption of society during the neoclassical period in Britain. Underneath the enlightenment ideals of rationality, order and knowledge, society embraced a pervasive obsession with "decorum," a facade of established traditions and vanities, as well as an innate sense of moral and political supremacy. Satires during this period aimed to point out the shortcomings of society through ridiculing accepted standards of thought, exposing Britain’s flaws and chastising the hypocrisy of the time [1] .

To start with this study, it will be analyzed how John Gay satirizes the political, social and cultural values of 18th century Britain in The Beggar’s Opera.

Firstly, the play is mainly a satire of the English taste for Italian opera. On the one hand, Gay uses the music (Airs) in order to lampoon it. In general, he makes use of ballad tunes that would have been familiar to audiences from across the social scale in an indigenous and popular setting, mixing of high and low culture. Moreover, you can find a clear attack toward Italian Opera. For example, in the Air 38 Gay makes a burlesque of famous dispute between the Italian sopranos Faustina and Cuzzoni, who are parodied by Lucy and Polly [2] . Besides this, there is also a mockery of French songs and dances. For instance, the Air 22, which is sung by Macheath, is called ‘Cotillon’, a term used to describe several French country dances, besides deriving from the second line of a French song (II. 4). On the other hand, it replaces gods and heroes, belonging to Italian Opera, with thief-catchers, criminals and prostitutes, creating a direct satire. In addition, he also ridicules heightened language and sentiment of these plays as we can see in the beginning of the Act III: ‘Jelousy, rage, love, and fear are at once tearing me to pieces’ (III. 7. 1).

Secondly, injustice, poverty, values, customs and behavior of society are also lampooned in the work, focusing on corruption at all levels in society. In fact, the book announces itself as a general satire on corruption from its opening song. It is sung by the thief-taker Peachum, abuse of trust infects every personal and professional relationship, from family and neighbors up to the statesman who ‘Thinks his trade as honest mine’ (Intr. pp. xiv). Although Gay criticizes the society’s corruption in general, the satire focuses more on the upper class, doing similarities of their behavior and customs with lower class, showing that no one is better than another. In addition to that, he devalues the language of this ‘polite society’. As the English critic William Empson points out, ‘the trick of style that makes this plausible is Comic Primness, the double irony in the acceptance of a convention […]the author may mean a critical irony when he assigns the character a primness’ [3] .In other words, the characters use a vocabulary of elegant primness, that is, decorum, to describe 'lower' events. Criminals themselves speak the language of polite society, consequently lower and upper class shared idiom of politeness. One good illustration is found in the Act II, where the prostitutes’ farewell burlesques the behavior of polite society:

MRS SLAMMEKIN: Dear madam-

DOLLY TRULL: I would not for the world-

MRS SLAMMEKIN: ’Tis impossible for me-

DOLLY TRULL: As I hope to be saved, madam-

MRS SLAMMEKIN: Nay then, I must stay here all night-

DOLLY TRULL: Since you command me.

Exeunt [all the women] with great ceremony. (II. 6. 13-18)

Continuing with this issue, the way I see it, in the world of The Beggar’s Opera, everything is based on commodity. Even the family acts as members of a corporation, where they remain together for the interest, especially economic. This is another method which Gay employs to ridicule the values, customs and taste of the period. The Peachum’s family conceives everything as loss or profit, reducing it to commercial transactions. For example, it can be seen in the Air 5:


A wife’s like a guinea in gold

Stamped with the name of her spouse

Now here, now there; is bought, or is sold

And is current in every house" (I. 5. 7-14).

For Mr. Peachum, his daughter is valuable because only for the profit that he can get: ‘a handsome wench in our way of business is as profitable as at the bar of a Temple coffeehouse’ (I. 4. 70-71). He only disapproves of Polly’s marriage to Macheath because he does not stand to gain himself. Moreover, although everything appears to indicate that Polly is the only one character that is innocent and loyal in this world of corruption, she sometimes seems to be influenced by taste and customs of this period. Polly’s ideas of love are fashioned by middle class leisure object and cultural commodity (romance novels and criminal narratives). This is shown for example in Act I: ‘Nay, my dear, I have no reason to doubt you, for I find in the romances you lent me, none of the great heroes were ever false in love’ (I. 12. 15-17). Regarding with this issue, there are also some ballads dedicated to lampoon the importance of money and bribery such as the Air 33, where it is asserts that ‘the perquisite […] / that reason with all is prevailing’ (II. 12. 17-18).

Thirdly, Gay's ballad opera also satirized Robert Walpole and his government. The main characters, Macheath and Peachum, were portraits of well-known criminals John Sheppard and Jonathan Wild. However, sometimes Peachum is also meant to satirize Walpole. The politician had tried to eliminate free press many times through spies, bribery, imprisonment, and bribing journalists and newspapers proprietors [4] . For that reason, the Peachum’s behavior as a thief, womanizer, and double-dealer directly attacked Walpole who was known as a corrupt leader as well as an adulterer. Likewise, in the Act III Matt of the mint uses a proverb that involves direct criticism to the laws as well as the powerful people. According to editors, ‘the implication is that members of high society and government can get away with serious crimes whilst those in the lower and criminal classes are viewed with suspicion even when behaving innocently’ (III. 4. 22-23).

To finish with this book, I would like to highlight the ending, where the beggar and the player are talking about the play’s ending. Until the end of the work, Gay leaves a mark of satire of obsession with taste and decorum of the upper class. Consequently, like the endings of Italian operas it satirizes, it should end happily. The player admits ironically ‘All this we must do to comply with the taste of the town’ (III. 16. 14).

To continue, the analysis will focus on the second book: Joseph Andrews. We are going to examine how Henry Fielding also satirizes the manners or decorum of Eighteenth-century society through his play. Unlike Gay, Fielding performs most of his satire through the representation of the characters. The study of those allows the author to explore all the unpleasant aspects of life of his time.

First of all, in the Preface Fielding declares his satirical purpose: ‘the ridiculous only […] falls within my province in the present work’. And he continues: ‘The only source of the true Ridiculous (as it appears to me) is affectation. […]Now, affectation proceeds from one of these two causes, vanity or hypocrisy’ [5] .

Fielding starts exploring women’s behavior. Women of all classes are snobbish, that is, they have exaggerated respect for high social position or wealth and so ‘amorous’. The play gives us a satirical image of an upper-class’ lady: Mary Bobby. This picture is followed by equally satirical picture of Mr. Slipslop, her maid. Both they in some moment of the play feel attracted by Joseph and seek in vain to have sexual gratification from him. An example of these insinuations is the following: ‘she then raised herself a little in her bed, and discovered one the whitest necks that ever was seen’ (p. 38). ‘The larger context of the pursuit of Joseph offers ample illustration of the "only source of the true Ridiculous" — affectation. The affectation of Lady Booby is more dangerous than Slipslop's because it involves deceit and hypocrisy’ [6] . Moreover, Mary Bobby is a clear example of the traditional flaws of the upper class, that is, snobbism, selfishness and lack of restrain.

Besides, Fielding portrays a society that is inhuman, callous, indifferent, uncharitable and narcissistic. These characteristics are clearly exposed in the Chapter XII, in the stage-coach episode. Only one of the travelers shows any real compassion for Joseph, who is wounded and almost naked. The coachman only thinks about his schedule, the lady is shocked at the thought of a naked man, the old gentleman wants to hurry to avoid being robbed himself, and the lawyer is worried only by the possible legal repercussions. These are all types of selfishness and ingratitude. The following passage exemplifies the attitude of the old man: ‘Joseph begged them to have mercy upon him: for that he had been robbed and almost beaten to death. "Robbed!" cries an old gentleman: "let us make all the haste imaginable, or we shall be robbed too"’ (p. 61). The poor postillion is the only one that shows sympathy, offering his greatcoat: ‘that he would rather ride in his shirt all his life than suffer a fellow-creature to lie in so miserable a condition’ (p. 62). Therefore, here Fielding also shows us the contrast between the behavior and attitude of the rich and the poor people, satirizing and criticizing the upper class attitudes.

Fielding also provides some glimpses of the chaotic, greedy and hypocrite sides of the 18th century society. A robbery incident and the attempts to rape Fanny by a villain are some examples of the chaotic side. Human greed is exposed by the characters of the surgeon and the parsons. On the one hand, in the chapter 14, it seems that the surgeon does not want to help Joseph, who is wounded, because he would not get any revenue from the wounded man. First, the surgeon asserts that ‘his case is that of a dead man’ (p. 71). However, when Mr. Adams says that he has money, the situation changes such as it is shown in this passage: ‘after this he was, by Mrs. Tow-wouse’s order, conveyed into a better bed and equipped with one of her husband’s shirts’ (pp. 75-76). On the other hand, the parson Mr. Barnabas is more interested in legal and justice issues than in his real functions. This satire to religious institutions is reinforced in the chapter XIV with the figure of Trulliber, another clergyman. Adams requests Trulliber to assist him with a loan and his answer is the opposite of what is expected: ‘Thou dost no intend to rob me?’ and then, it is said that ‘he would give him nothing’ (p. 168). This situation shows the hypocrisy of the churchman. Examining the issue of hypocrisy, it is clear that Fielding also lampoons the justice of the period, for instant, in the Book II, where Adams and Fanny are accused of robbery and assault without evidence (p.144). Another example is the situation in which Joseph and Fanny are charged with theft, only to satisfy a whim of Lady Booby. Here Fielding shows lack of moral sense and the hypocrisy of the society.

To finish, it must be said that as in Gay’s work, Fielding also presents throughout the play a society based on economical issues. Money is the most important thing for the characters, being the satire of the greed one of the main topic in the play. This is clearly illustrates when Mrs. Tow-wouse said, ‘If the traveller be a gentleman, though he hath no money about him now, we shall most likely be paid hereafter; so you may begin to score whenever you will’ (p. 74).

To sum up, this critical essay have examined how Gay and Fielding use the notions of decorum and taste in a satirical way through their works to interrogate and criticize the social, cultural and political values of the 18th-century England society. Both plays are an amazing representation of this period, reflecting the flaws of mankind in its true face. Moreover, it has been shown that both writers with similar, but also different techniques achieve their main purpose: interrogate the social and moral ills of their period in a satirical way.


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