The play begins with a sung prologue. It is a fair day in Soho, a bustling lower-class Victorian neighborhood in London. Beggars, thieves, and whores ply their trades on the streets. A singer steps out and sings a ballad about Mackie the Knife. He describes the hardened criminal Macheath as a shark who hides a knife behind his open face and wears white kid gloves that conceal his crimes. The singer then lists a series of brutal murders, robberies, arsons, and rapes that have gone unexplained. Each time he describes a new crime, the singer places Macheath at the scene. The last crime is the rape of a young girl assaulted while she was sleeping. The singer jokingly asks how much Mackie (Macheath’s nickname) paid the girl after he raped her. The song ends with the whores laughing at the crass joke. A man steps out from the crowd and walks away. One whore exclaims that the man was Mackie the Knife.

The scene switches to Peachum’s beggars’ shop. Peachum sings “Peachum’s Morning Anthem,” in which he exhorts himself to be a more ruthless crook, or the Lord will cut him down. Then he delivers a monologue describing the difficulties of his business. Peachum runs a shop outfitting the downtrodden in beggars’ costumes and takes a share of their income. He explains that the trouble with his business is finding new ways to elicit sympathy because human beings can deaden their feelings. During his monologue, he brings up biblical proverbs, claiming that the proverbs are useful for tugging at heartstrings but that they get worn out after being used too often.

A man named Filch enters the establishment and launches into a tale of abandonment and poverty. Peachum asks if the man gives this speech on street corners, and Filch replies that he had given it the day before, on Highland Street. Peachum recognizes Filch as the unlicensed beggar that some of his men beat up the day before. Peachum admonishes him for begging without a license and demands one pound for the license. Filch pleads poverty and points to a sign reading, “Do not turn a deaf ear to misery!” Peachum responds by pointing at a sign that reads, “Give and it shall be given unto you!” Filch offers a smaller amount, and Peachum accepts by demanding a certain percentage of Filch’s take from begging. Peachum then reveals five different begging costumes and selects one. Filch protests that he wants to have a costume closer to the truth of his situation. Peachum disagrees with him and gives him a different role. He also mentions that Filch has good timing, as the upcoming queen’s coronation will mean more business for beggars.

While Filch is being outfitted, Peachum and his wife, Celia, talk about the man who has been courting their daughter Polly. Peachum worries that Polly’s marriage will cause him to lose his business. The only reason many of his clients still come to his shop, he says, is to see Polly’s legs. Mrs. Peachum says the suitor is a real gentleman and that he took her and her daughter to the Octopus Hotel. She does not know his name but calls him the “Captain” and describes him as always handling Polly with kid gloves. Peachum realizes his daughter’s suitor is Macheath just from that detail. He runs upstairs to see if Polly is there and discovers that she is gone. He says that her bed has not been slept in. The Peachums hope fervently that she is not with Macheath. Then they sing together “The I-For-One Song,” in which they describe how children cannot see what is good for them. They sing about how love tricks the young with its promises of the moon and forever and how love will leave them heartbroken when it all falls apart.


The prologue song “The Ballad of Mackie the Knife” establishes the tone of menace and irony that permeates the play. The song gives graphic descriptions of Macheath’s crimes, which the characters that populate the play greet with glee. Immediately, the song sets up a world in which traditional notions of right and wrong are being challenged. The contradiction between Macheath’s crimes and the love he inspires forces the audience to question they consider to be good and who they consider to be bad in this world.

The nineteenth-century Victorian London setting emphasizes the alienation effect. This setting would have been unfamiliar to Brecht’s German audience in 1928. The different time period also allows Brecht to critically analyze the events and compare them to those in the present. Like Germany, Victorian London had great class stratification, when a mass of poor suffered while a small elite lived in great wealth. But while the two eras share many similarities, they are also separated by time and physical distance. This separation lets Brecht comment on his society in subtle ways. Rather than overtly criticize his contemporaries, Brecht sets his play in the past (and in another country), which allows him to comment on familiar events without offending his audience.

The first scene with Peachum demonstrates the arbitrariness of values in the play. Peachum’s opening speech indicates that he only cares about how much he profits from his business. His concern for his daughter’s relationship lies in the fact that he thinks her absence will hurt his company. As a father, his responsibility should be with this family, as well as his business. Yet Peachum’s only motivation is making money for himself and defending his own interests. His concern is not for his daughter’s involvement with a notorious criminal but for his company that could suffer as a result. Another example of the arbitrariness of values is Peachum’s use of the Bible. As a Christian, he frequently refers to and quotes the Bible. However, the only reason he is Christian, though, is because he finds Christianity to be helpful. He uses biblical quotes to make people feel guilty and to justify his exploitation. Peachum emphasizes his self-serving Christianity through the interaction with Filch, in which Filch employs one biblical quote to ask for mercy, and Peachum responds with another quote demanding that Filch pay up. Despite Peachum’s attention to the Bible, some of the verses he recites have multiple meanings that are antithetical to the intention of the Bible. Peachum thinks the quotations will help support the way he conducts business, but instead he misuses them and only applies the verses to himself. Peachum is the embodiment of the arbitrariness of values because he uses the Bible as a means to justify his treatment of others and to aide in the success of his business.

The Peachums’ view of their daughter’s relationship with Macheath emphasizes the conflict between self-interest and love. They do not consider Polly’s happiness and only think about how much money they are going to lose. The discussion of Polly’s effect on their business also emphasizes the Peachums’ own self-interest. The loss of their daughter will threaten their business, so naturally Macheath must be stopped at all costs. The motivating action of the play is not a psychological conflict but a conflict of material interests. From Peachum’s perspective, the problem is that love is not compatible with (his) self-interest. Love requires giving oneself to another, while self-interest only demands incompatible solipsism, which is the idea that one’s mind is the only thing that exists. Clearly self-interest motivates Peachum to only think of how the marriage will hurt business because he does not give another thought to his daughter being in love. The song that the Peachums sing at the end of the scene portrays the view that love is foolish and makes the young lose sight of what is best for them. Polly’s primary sin, in their eyes, is that she stopped looking out for herself. The Peachums imply that Polly should only think of herself and not consider others in her actions. Together, they argue that self-interest is more important than love because love gets in the way of what is most important.

Peachum’s business of outfitting beggars is an important way of understanding the competitiveness of the capitalist system. The capitalist system creates incentives for people to sell anything that will make money. Instead of making shoes or cars, though, Peachum “makes” pity by depending on the charity of others. His profit highlights the competitiveness of the capitalist system. The incentives to make money are so strong that people will sell anything, even an emotion. Peachum serves as a stand-in for capitalism because he does not care about anyone else’s feelings, and his only concern is generating revenue. Peachum acts as a monopolist, the one man who controls the business of begging in London. He vigorously protects his business from all competitors. Through competition, capitalism rewards those people who can make whatever it is they are selling better. When Filch first enters, he launches into a heartfelt speech about his misery. Peachum is unimpressed with the string of clichés that Filch uses. As a professional, Peachum has studied the art of creating pity, and he knows what does and does not work. His five outfits of misery are evidence that he is educated in the art of begging enough to know that no one can make suffering sound convincing on their own. By creating beggars that are better than the real thing, Peachum takes the capitalist system to its logical extreme by selling an emotion.