The play demonstrates the arbitrariness of values. Throughout, Peachum uses traditional moral stances, such making the characters quote the Bible, to justify exploitation and cruelty. Peachum takes biblical quotes and uses them for his own purposes, as in Act I, scene I, when he demands that Filch pay him because he will be given something in return. Peachum offers Filch a job in exchange for payment, but this job involves preying on people’s sympathies by pretending to be a beggar. Peachum is not charitable toward someone if said charity does not involve making money. But by reciting lines from the Bible, he appears as though he is helping others. Although biblical proverbs are associated with morality, it is clear that the characters are only interested in enriching themselves and not others when they quote the Bible. Peachum makes the same point about the law in Act III, scene I. Peachum proclaims his absolute devotion to obeying the law, but only because he knows that it is a useful tool for helping him exploit those weaker than him. In each of these situations, a traditional moral value (religiosity, obeying the law) is shown to be a mask for exploitation. Brecht’s point is that the foundations of society’s supposedly rigid moral values are in fact made of nothing and appear less noble beneath the surface.
Macheath’s actions present this theme from a different angle. Macheath’s middle-class aspirations embody another set of values: the belief in upward mobility and economic progress. Traditionally, these values are associated with a progression toward power and responsibility. Macheath wants to leave his life of crime, put his money into a bank, and acquire the trappings of middle-class life like quality furniture, tableware, and manners. Despite wanting to leave crime, Macheath has no intention, though, of changing his values. He steals the domestic niceties he desires, continues to visit the whorehouse even though he is married, and plans to betray his friends to make it easier to stay on the right path. By showing Macheath’s desire for economic legitimacy as completely unconnected to any change, Brecht reveals that although Macheath may plan to leave his life of crime for a safer profession, his values will remain unchanged.
In the finale to Act II, moral values are emphasized when Macheath and Jenny sing the “Second Threepenny-Final.” In the song, they sing that before moralists go preaching about personal behavior, they should make sure that everyone has food to eat. Morality is a tool of the rich and powerful to maintain their positions. For the lower-class citizens, survival has to come before morals. Brecht’s point, therefore, is not to replace one set of hollow moral values with another. Instead, he emphasizes the focus on the wellbeing of society’s poorest.
Many of the characters’ decisions create a conflict between self-interest and love. In a capitalist society in which competition rewards ruthlessness and brutality, the characters are forced to trample on each other to survive. In The Threepenny Opera, characters make decisions not based on psychology but on the need or desire for material things such as money. Every action that furthers the plot in The Threepenny Opera is based on a character pursuing self-interest. Peachum decides to bring down Macheath because losing his daughter will hurt his business, not because he fears for her life in the hands of a criminal. He does not consider Polly’s feelings for Macheath or care that she loves him; his business concerns motivate him to destroy their marriage. Jenny turns in Macheath because she needs the money, not because she hates him for abusing her. Instead of showing loyalty to his friend, Brown agrees to capture Macheath because he is afraid of Peachum’s beggars disrupting the queen’s coronation. Polly is the only character who acts out of love and not self-interest. She truly loves Macheath, so she is willing to do anything to help him. Her sweet nature turns to toughness when she must take over Macheath’s business, but her love for Macheath never diminishes even when he betrays her and tells Lucy that Polly is not his wife.
The setting of the play amidst prostitutes, beggars, and thieves emphasizes the competitiveness of the capitalist system. In The Threepenny Opera, Brecht argues that a capitalist system drives people to do anything to make money. They steal, kill, and sell their bodies, and none of these actions is out of the ordinary. These activities will arise naturally because the characters live in a system that rewards ruthless competition. For example, Macheath plans to steal the money he owes his friends so he can be successful in banking. He clearly wants to get ahead in the world and does not care who he leaves behind in the process. Jenny lets Macheath sleep with her even though he physically abused her in the past; she gives her body to Macheath in exchange for money. Another example is Peachum, who creates fake beggars that are better than the real thing to draw income from the guilty middle and upper classes. Essentially, he sells pity, and he steals from the public by allowing fake beggars to roam the streets. As an entrepreneur who sells an emotion, Peachum makes the competitiveness of the capitalist system more concrete.
The characters make decisions throughout the play that display their brutality toward one another. According to the play, in a capitalist society, exploitation is not a byproduct of the system but a natural part of it. People like Peachum who know how to use the rules of society to their advantage are rewarded for their cruelty. Macheath demonstrates this brutality that underlies society. Macheath is a vicious criminal, but rather than reprimand him or make him guilt-ridden over his crimes, Brecht puts Macheath’s criminality in context by comparing his crimes to those of banks and businesses. Those institutions do far more harm than Macheath does because they exploit the poor and workers. Macheath’s decision to pursue banking is ironic because in this industry he will be crueler and more evil than he was as a criminal. From this perspective, Macheath is not such a menace to society but just part of it like everyone else. Brecht emphasizes that if capitalism is society’s guiding principle, then even criminals should be accepted.
Brecht believed that audiences became too emotionally involved and drawn into an illusory world by attaching themselves to fictional characters. This loyalty to the characters robbed the audience of their ability to think critically and prevented them from understanding the world and therefore changing it. As a result, Brecht developed an idea for the theater called Verfremdungseffekt, often translated as the “alienation effect.” The alienation effect means that the audience is purposefully distanced from the action of the play. This separation allows them to think critically about what they are seeing, to analyze why it is occurring, and to think about how it could be changed. Brecht uses the alienation effect to make audiences think about changing the world. The primary way that Brecht creates alienation in The Threepenny Opera is by using songs to disrupt realistic scenes. Brecht employs his alienation effect using irony and by having actors step out of their characters to comment on the action of the play.
Throughout The Threepenny Opera, Brecht uses irony, the sharp dissimilarity between the real and ideal. Brecht employs irony by setting up the audiences’ and characters’ expectations, then delivering the opposite. These reversals force the audience to think about the choices made by characters and about the play’s arguments. One of the play’s arguments is that the acts of stealing, killing, and betraying others are acceptable in a capitalist society because these actions are a means of making money. For instance, Jenny’s decision to turn in Macheath is based solely on the fact that she will be compensated. Another example is Macheath’s aspiration to live a comfortable middle-class life, but he does so by killing and stealing. Even though he implies that he wants to get away from his criminal ways, Macheath gives no indication of leaving behind his ways at the end of the play. Polly is also seen as an innocent girl in love, but she shows another side when she steals and hides Macheath’s fortune. Peachum defends traditional moral positions like obedience to the law by explaining how such positions can be used to exploit others. These contradictory positions force the audience to question why they believe in traditional morality.
By making his characters the prostitutes and thieves of London, Brecht wants to blur the line between criminality and honesty. Macheath aspires to be middle class, with his fancy dress and his attempts at elegant speech. Peachum, the most hypocritical character in the play, presents himself as an honest small businessman. Brecht argues that the only difference between a criminal and a businessperson is that society lets the businesspeople get away with stealing. This motif helps to call into question traditional moral positions that would condemn those who are supposedly criminals. Peachum is the implied criminal in the story because he is a businessman stealing money from the rich. He draws income from the guilty middle and upper classes because they fall prey to fake beggars.
Throughout the play, Macheath wears fancy white kid gloves. In a literal sense, Macheath’s gloves represent his class aspirations: Macheath wants to be an aristocrat, so he dresses in the clothing of the upper class. Mrs. Peachum does not even recognize him when she sees Macheath in his elegant dress. In a more profound sense, the kid gloves serve as a metaphor for the brutality of humans: while Macheath hides his crimes behind his elegant dress, society hides its exploitation behind a gentle Christian morality. However, the white kid gloves do not hide someone’s true character; they only make the person wearing the gloves look proper and classier in society. Above all, the white kid gloves serve as a disguise for the criminal that Macheath ultimately represents.
The moon appears whenever love is in the air. The Peachums sing about it mockingly while discussing Polly’s love, and Polly sings about the moon in her song about falling in love with Macheath. Later, after Macheath has left her, Polly describes the moon as “thin as a worn-down penny.” The sweetness of the moonlight always contrasts with the hardness and dirtiness of the world below. The moon also represents hope. Brown refers to the moon when he realizes that he betrayed his friend, Macheath. Brown stares at the moon and hopes his team of police do not find Macheath, but his hope falls when he sees Macheath in the jail cell.
In The Threepenny Opera, sex serves two important functions. First, sex demonstrates how people are driven by material, physical urges. Macheath should flee the city, but he returns to the whorehouse anyway, because he cannot resist his weekly appointment. In this respect, sex represents how people are first and foremost motivated by their desires. Second, the normality of the prostitutes’ lives serves to emphasize again the arbitrariness of values. Prostitutes are no different from any worker in the capitalist system because they simply provide a service for money. Everyone is selling something, but that selling one’s body is not seen as worse than selling labor shows Brecht’s outlook of capitalism as a moral equalizer of a variety of deeds.