Scandal and Satire at the Early Georgian Theatre

The Beggar's Opera by William Hogarth, 1729

By Yale Center for British Art

The Beggar's Opera (1729) by William Hogarth, 1697–1764, BritishYale Center for British Art

The success of this painting helped launch the career of William Hogarth and laid the path for him to become one of the greatest satirical artists of all time.

Self-Portrait (ca. 1735) by William Hogarth, 1697–1764, BritishYale Center for British Art

Up until this point, portraiture had been Hogarth’s main source of work.

In this self-portrait Hogarth depicts himself holding a palette loaded with colours for the flesh tones of a portrait.

The Beggar's Opera (1729) by William Hogarth, 1697–1764, BritishYale Center for British Art

This is one of a number of versions of the same subject that Hogarth produced in the late 1720s and early 1730s. It was commissioned by the theatre director John Rich to celebrate the run-away success of the play by John Gay and is thought to have been made to adorn the theatre Rich was building in Covent Garden. As contemporaries observed, it made ‘Gay rich and Rich gay’.

This scene of the play is set in Newgate Prison, but Hogarth wants us to see the stage and the audience as well. On the stage curtain there is a royal coat of arms with the Latin motto "VELUTI IN SPECULUM - UTILE DULCI" which translates to "As in a mirror - instruction with delight"; suggesting that the play reflects the realities of life in early Georgian London.

Rehearsal of an opera (ca. 1709) by Marco Ricci, 1676–1729, Italian, active in Britain (1708–10; 1711–16)Yale Center for British Art

This painting by Marco Ricci, shows a rehearsal of the newly fashionable form of theatre imported to Britain from Italy: the opera.

The Beggar's Opera by John Gay satirized these Italian operas by replacing their formal arias with traditional ballads and bawdy characters.

The Beggar's Opera (1729) by William Hogarth, 1697–1764, BritishYale Center for British Art

Hogarth’s painting of The Beggar’s Opera depicts the climactic scene of the play in which two women beg their fathers for the release of the antihero -the bigamous and disreputable highwayman Macheath- who, clapped in irons, is resigned to his fate.

Both believing Macheath to be their husband, the women fall to their their knees asking for mercy for him. The farcical confusion of this final scene would have been understood as a commentary on the injustices of Georgian society, all the more so when Macheath is released.

As it happened, a real-life rags-to-riches story played out over the run of The Beggar’s Opera and this ‘play within a play’ is included in the painting.

On the far right of the painting, an aristocrat sits attentively, enjoying the privilege of attending the performance on stage. Setting his book to one side, he is captivated by the singing of the young actor Lavinia Fenton, who plays the role of Polly Peachum.

On the death of his estranged wife in 1751, Charles Paulet, 3rd Duke of Bolton married Lavinia Fenton. Hogarth meanwhile went on to become one of the most successful artists of his day, and his satirical works remain some of the greatest ever made.

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