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 15, 2023
December 8, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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
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
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Threepenny Opera!