Please wait while we process your payment
If you don't see it, please check your spam folder. Sometimes it can end up there.
Don’t have an account?
Create Your Account
Sign up for your FREE 7-day trial
Already have an account? Log in
Choose Your Plan
$4.99/month + tax
$24.99/year + tax
Save over 50% with a SparkNotes PLUS Annual Plan!
for a group?
Get Annual Plans at a discount when you buy 2 or more!
$18.74 /subscription + tax
Subtotal $37.48 + tax
on 2-49 accounts
on 50-99 accounts
Want 100 or more?
for a customized plan.
You'll be billed after your free trial ends.
7-Day Free Trial
Renews December 14, 2023
December 7, 2023
Discounts (applied to next billing)
This is not a valid promo code.
(one code per order)
Annual Plan - Group Discount
SparkNotes Plus subscription is $4.99/month or $24.99/year as selected above. The free trial period is the first 7 days of your subscription. TO CANCEL YOUR SUBSCRIPTION AND AVOID BEING CHARGED, YOU MUST CANCEL BEFORE THE END OF THE FREE TRIAL PERIOD. You may cancel your subscription on your Subscription and Billing page or contact Customer Support at email@example.com. Your subscription will continue automatically once the free trial period is over. Free trial is available to new customers only.
For the next 7 days, you'll have access to awesome PLUS stuff like AP English test prep, No Fear Shakespeare translations and audio, a note-taking tool, personalized dashboard, & much more!
You’ve successfully purchased a group discount. Your group members can use the joining link below to redeem their group membership. You'll also receive an email with the link.
Members will be prompted to log in or create an account to redeem their group membership.
Thanks for creating a SparkNotes account! Continue to start your free trial.
Your PLUS subscription has expired
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
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Threepenny Opera!