Constables bring Macheath into the death cell at the jail. The time is 5:04 a.m. The constables say that Macheath will be hanged at 6 a.m. One of the constables mentions that a huge crowd is forming around the jail. At this rate no one will be there to see the queen’s coronation at 7 a.m., because they will all be at Macheath’s hanging. The constables lock Macheath’s cell, and then Brown enters. Without looking at Macheath, he tells Constable Smith that he wants nothing to do with Macheath’s hanging. He exits.

As soon as he is gone, Macheath breaks into an elegant plea to one of the constables, Smith. Macheath tells Smith he will not say a word about bribery; he just wants to know how much it might cost for him to buy his freedom. He tells Smith to think it over. Smith tells Macheath that Macheath is talking nonsense, but Smith listens carefully. After Macheath sings of the bribery, Smith leaves.

Alone, Macheath sings a single stanza from “Call from the Grave,” pleading for help before it is too late. Matthew and Jacob appear. The time is now 5:25. Macheath asks whether they can get four hundred pounds. Jacob says that is everything they have left in the bank, and Macheath protests that he is the one being hanged. Matthew tells Macheath he should have been out of town anyway. Smith sticks his head in to ask what Macheath wants for his final meal, and Macheath answers that he wants asparagus. Macheath prevails upon his men to run out and get as much money as they can.

Smith re-enters and asks how much money Macheath can get. Macheath tells him four hundred pounds, and Smith shrugs noncommittally. As Smith exits, Macheath calls after him that he wants to speak with Brown. Macheath sings another stanza from “Call from the Grave,” now even more desperately calling for aid.

Polly shows up to visit Macheath. He asks how she is holding up, and she says the business is doing very well. She begins to ask all the questions she has never asked him, but he cuts her off to ask for money. She says it is all gone off to the banks, like he ordered. She breaks down crying, and Smith pulls her away from the cell, asking whether Macheath has raised the money yet. She exits, asking Macheath to never forget her.

Brown and Smith bring a table in to Macheath with his asparagus on it. Macheath acts coldly toward Brown. He asks Brown to go over their accounts, the tally of the bribes that Macheath owes him. Brown is despondent, but he takes out the account book. As soon as he does, Macheath is furious that Brown would expect money from his friend who is about to be hanged. Macheath insists on a full detailed bill. Offstage the sound of men working on the gallows can be heard.

Brown begins going over their accounts. With each item, he grows more despairing, while Macheath remains cold and cruel. Macheath even quotes a line from the duet the two men shared back in Act I, scene II, about their great friendship. Overwhelmed, Brown runs from the cell. He tells Smith to release Macheath from the cell for the hanging. Smith approaches Macheath and asks again whether he has the money yet. He can only release him if he gets the money now. Macheath says he has to wait until Matthew and Jacob come back. Smith says they have not shown up, so they do not have a deal.

People are admitted for the hanging. All the characters from the play are there. Peachum introduces himself to Macheath and says that Macheath was never a noble man. Matthew and Jacob come forward and say they could not get through to the bank because of the crowd outside. Macheath cuts them off and asks about how the men are positioned for their crimes during the coronation. Matthew says they are all in good spots and that they send their best wishes.

The time is now 6 a.m. Smith opens Macheath’s cell to walk him to the gallows. Macheath gives his last speech. He describes himself as a citizen of a lower-class social group at a time when robbery is being increasingly monopolized by the big corporations and banks. He compares his tools with those of the great engines of industry and finds that his robbery cannot measure up. The speech ends with Macheath thanking everyone for coming.

His speech finished, Macheath sings the “Ballad in which Macheath Begs Pardon of All.” At the beginning of the song, Macheath says that people should not judge him too harshly and asks that God forgive his sins. In the second stanza, the tone begins to shift as he sings about how crows will peck away his eyes and how his downfall was brought about by the greed and cruelty of those around him. He asks for forgiveness for everyone’s sins, not just his own. In the third stanza, he describes the sins of the whores, robbers, and pimps that make up his world and asks for their forgiveness. The same courtesy does not go out to the police who stymied him, though. In the fourth stanza, Macheath calls on God to kill the police, but he realizes that he will never save his soul that way. Upon asking for their forgiveness, he immediately takes it back, singing that someone should beat them with a crowbar. Then Macheath asks once more for forgiveness.

Smith leads the procession to the gallows. When Macheath arrives at the top of the scaffold, Smith tells the audience that they will hang Macheath by the neck. Then, Peachum suddenly steps out of character, telling the audience that they do not want to offend anyone and adds that they decided to end the play differently. He announces that a royal official will now appear on a horse.

During the finale, Brown appears on horseback as a royal messenger. He carries a special order from the queen that Macheath be freed and made a nobleman. All cheer. Macheath is relieved, and Polly is delighted. Mrs. Peachum, also out of character now, says how nice it would be if saviors on horseback always came. Peachum asks everyone to join in a hymn for the poorest of the poor. No one comes to save the poor, he says, and they have no choice but to fight back against a society that oppresses them. The whole group comes forward, singing a short stanza asking that injustice be spared from persecution and that everyone keep in mind the darkness of the world.


The final scene emphasizes the way material concerns and economics influence human life. Constable Smith makes it clear to Macheath that if he could get the money, Macheath would be a free man. Smith’s unwillingness to free Macheath without getting a bribe is not presented as cruelty but as a simple fact of life: No one gets anything for free. For his part, Macheath acknowledges that to free himself he would need to pay Smith. When he cannot come up with the money, he does not beg for mercy or bemoan his fate. Macheath accepts that punishment is inevitable for someone who cannot pay his way out of trouble. Macheath’s primary concern is still business. He forces Brown to go over their accounts to see what they owe one another. After Matthew and Jacob return from the bank empty-handed, he is more concerned about how the men are positioned to steal from the public for the coronation than about his own neck.

Macheath’s speech before he goes to the scaffold critiques the competitiveness of capitalism. Macheath compares the tools of his trade to those of banks and major corporations. Theft by physical force is nothing compared to theft by economic means. Macheath steals from only a few, while a bank steals from all by consolidating money and power into the hands of the rich. Macheath may be a murderer, but that role is nowhere near as bad as being an employer. This comparison portrays Macheath as the ironic hero because he commits crimes against fewer people than does Peachum or the rest of society. The implication is that employment brutalizes and exploits people far more than even murder.

The play’s radicalism can be seen in the conflict between justice and humanity. These two principles are normally considered to be in harmony in a good society: Humans are just by nature. Here, however, Macheath’s crimes are presented as natural outgrowths of a capitalist society. Money also allows people to skirt justice, as when Macheath almost bribes his way out of jail. Justice would mean killing Macheath for his crimes. But, according to Brecht, in a capitalist society, justice depends only on economics, not on whether crimes deserve to be punished. Humanity demands that Macheath suffer and pay for the crimes he committed against others. The play intentionally contrasts two principles that society holds true to force the audience to consider which one they would choose in a moment of truth.

The final scene of The Threepenny Opera is the most artfully constructed scene in the play. The stage instructions direct Macheath onstage to open the scene, and he remains stationary at its center while all the action circles around him and connects to him. Each major character comes to Macheath, and each of the major relationships reaches a resolution: Polly forgives him, Brown conclusively ends their friendship, and the thieves reach peace. These resolutions imply that Macheath is really going to die. From the central position, Macheath attempts to first save himself, to justify his life, and then to ask for forgiveness. His inability to escape and be free displays an avoidance of responsibility and a rise above vengeance, which only accentuates his confinement. With each effort, his options constrict further, until finally the only way for him to go is up the scaffold. Meanwhile, throughout the scene, the gallows are being built offstage, and the coronation informs the concerns and lives of all of the characters. The scene is compressed into a single space, even while giving a sense of a whole world continuing around it. Brecht also pursues compression in terms of time, as he sets the entire action of the scene within a single hour. The fact that the time moves more quickly than real time, skipping from 5:00 to 5:25 within the space of a few lines, gives an even stronger sense of compression, which finally serves its purpose when the jarring deus ex machina appears.

The appearance of the deus ex machina emphasizes a happy ending to the play. Deus ex machina, a Latin term meaning “god out of the machine,” refers to a dramatic device used in ancient Greek theater. Near the end of a play, a god would be lowered to the stage using a crane, or “machine,” and suddenly resolve all of the problems of the play. In modern theater, deus ex machina has come to refer to any improbable and illogical way of resolving a play’s conflicts happily. In The Threepenny Opera, the deus ex machina is especially jarring because of the sense of compression that Brecht had built up throughout the scene. All of a sudden, Macheath is liberated from certain death, and the characters are liberated from their roles. Polly, Brown, and Lucy are relieved because they no longer need to find a way to rescue Macheath. The Peachums also do not need to worry about Macheath interfering with their business. The freedom is a powerful sense of possibility. The scene also takes a surprising turn when the royal messenger is Brown, of all characters. After all his betrayals, Brown actually saves Macheath. Brown’s appearance with the order from the queen makes him an ironic hero in the end.

The decision to make Peachum explain the significance of the dues ex machina is extremely important. Throughout the play, Peachum has been the embodiment of the hollowness of moral values. He is a selfish hypocrite and a repulsive character. Here at the last possible moment, however, Peachum leaves his character behind and introduces a real moral lesson. This action allows Brecht to make use of one of the unique features of theatrical performance. Throughout the duration of The Threepenny Opera, the audience would have grasped how Peachum spouts hypocrisy and venom. No matter how much alienation Brecht employed, the audience would come to identify the actor with those characteristics. When he suddenly steps out and speaks honestly and morally, the audience cannot help but trust his words because they are so markedly in contrast to his earlier hypocrisy. By using Peachum, Brecht creates the conditions for an audience to hear a genuine plea for generosity and charity.

Brecht takes a radical approach when he asks the audience to accept the happy ending of the play. The very impossibility of the ending becomes the point, because in real life the poor are seldom spared for their crimes, and Macheath would be killed if the story were not portrayed in the theater. Brecht uses the surprising appearance of the deus ex machina to emphasize how rarely everyone can experience such relief in life. By doing so, he asks the audience to examine the pleasure they take in Macheath being spared. If the audience feels such relief when a fictional criminal is allowed to live, then Brecht questions why they should not seek the same reprieve for the real criminals in the streets outside the theater.