The Beggar's Opera, by John Gay, was a new kind of musical entertainment first put on by John Rich at the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre, London, in January 1728, where it became a huge success. In form it was a satire on Italian grand opera, using popular tunes and ballads and substituting topical, recognisable, low-life characters, for classical gods and goddesses. This would have obvious appeal to Hogarth with his belief in the superiority of British to foreign art, but he would also have been strongly attracted by the opera's depiction of low-life and its thinly disguised satire on the government of the day. Hogarth's picture shows the climactic scene of The Beggar's Opera in which the highwayman hero, MacHeath, is under sentence of death. The two kneeling women, Lucy Lockit and Polly Peachum, both believe themselves to be married to him and are pleading for his life. The picture is one of the earliest known records of an actual stage performance. Hogarth produced six versions of it during the unprecedently long run of The Beggar's Opera, the last two of which are the most elaborate and complete. In particular, they include the figure of the Duke of Bolton, seated with other high-ranking members of the audience actually on the stage. This was normal practice at the time, but much disliked by the actors and was finally abolished in 1763 by the great actor-manager, David Garrick. The Duke is the seated figure in a blue coat on the extreme right of the stage. He is wearing the sash and star of the Order of the Garter, one of the highest British honours. However, Hogarth has included him here because during the run of The Beggar's Opera Bolton fell in love with the leading actress, Lavinia Fenton. She is the figure in white, centre stage, and the Duke is clearly following her performance with rapt attention. By the time Hogarth painted this version the affair had become well known. The Duke was twenty-three years older than Lavinia Fenton and married, and it is possible that Hogarth has used the opportunity to compare the criminal MacHeath's bigamous behaviour in the opera with the Duke's very similar behaviour in the audience, and to point out that aristocrats are not necessarily morally any better than those who are supposed to be their inferiors. Hogarth adds emphasis to his point by placing the Duke beneath the statue of a satyr, a symbol of lust, which furthermore appears to be pointing an accusing finger at him. The two ladies opposite, balancing the Duke, are obviously gossiping about the scandal.
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.24