The Prince Regent as Macheath

George Cruikshank (1792-1878), Polly and Lucy Takeing Off Restrictions, Vide Beggar’s Opera, 1812. Hand-colored etching. Graphic Arts Cruikshank Collection. Gift of Richard W. Meirs, Class of 1888.

John Gay (1685-1732) wrote The Beggar’s Opera in 1728 to lampoon the Whig statesman Robert Walpole, and politicians in general, as well as the notorious criminals Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard. In 1812, George Cruikshank (1792-1878) brought the story into the nineteenth century with his etching Polly and Lucy Takeing [sic] Off Restrictions, Vide [referring to] Beggar’s Opera.

In Cruikshank’s satire, the Prince Regent (later King George IV) is seen as the highwayman Macheath, standing between Maria Anne Fitzherbert (1756-1837) as Polly Peachum, on the left, and Lady Hertford (1760-1834) as Lucy Lockit, on the right. They are undoing the restraints put on the Prince/Macheath, who had been committed to Newgate Prison.

Like Macheath, the Prince had been shackled with terms of the Regency Bill, passed on February 4, 1811, which limited the Regent’s powers. These restrictions expired February 1812 and Cruikshank finished his print the following month. Mrs. Fitzherbert, like Polly, was married to the Regent and here represents the Catholic interest or the Opposition.