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Free Content Macheath and the Gaol-Breakers

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The figure of Macheath in John Gay's Beggar's Opera has sometimes been identified with Jack Sheppard. The article suggests that Sheppard is not a plausible model for Macheath, and that other escapees such as the well-known criminal Roger Johnson fit the case more squarely. A wider history of gaol-breaking, from the time of the Jacobite lords, underlies the use of this motif in Gay's drama. Moreover, a real-life model for Lockit can be found in the career of William Pitt, who was keeper of Newgate when many well publicized escapes took place. In the background lies an eminence grise, the Recorder of London, Sir William Thomson. A conclusion is that the satiric economy of The Beggar's Opera depends on an undertow of reference to these issues, which carried important political resonance.

Keywords: John Gay; Newgate prison; The Beggar's Opera; crime; gaol-breaking

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of South Florida

Publication date: January 1, 2005

More about this publication?
  • Literature & History is a biannual international refereed journal concerned to investigate the relations between writing, history and ideology. It provides an open forum for practitioners coming from the distinctive vantage points of either discipline (or from other adjacent subject areas) to explore issues of common concern: period, content, gender, class, nationality, changing sensibilities, discourse and language. Unique in its essentially plural identity, Literature & History began publication in 1975 and since 1992 has appeared under the imprint of Manchester University Press. Special issues devoted to a particular period or theme (produced under guest editorship) are published from time to time. Literature & History is a well known, theoretically self-conscious, and much referred to landmark in interdisciplinary studies and has consistently attracted contributions of high calibre.

    This title is now published by SAGE Publishing. The new website for this journal is Please be sure to update your bookmarks to the new website.

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