Study Guide

Macheath, a.k.a. "Mac the Knife" in The Threepenny Opera

By Bertolt Brecht

Macheath, a.k.a. "Mac the Knife"

Macheath, also known by the super-scary nickname "Mac the Knife," is the protagonist of Brecht's The Threepenny Opera. If you didn't catch it by the nickname, he's not someone you really want to mess with. In fact, he's London's most notorious criminal. But even his badness doesn't stop him from being a legendary hero, or at least an anti-hero. That gives him quite a bit of sway with the ladies, and things turn out well for him no matter what.


We're introduced to Macheath not by seeing him onstage, but rather by hearing about him. A ballad singer performs the now-famous "Ballad of Mac the Knife" as the opening to the play, outlining all of Mac's evil deeds, which include:

  • killing many men along the river
  • stealing cash
  • setting a fire that kills seven children, and
  • raping a young bride.

So why in the heck are we calling him a hero? It's not because we think he's a swell guy. It's the treatment he gets. Songs are sung about him, his name is famous, and everybody knows who he is and what his deal is. Mac's fame might be good for him, because people who would otherwise report him are so in awe or enamored that they let it slide:

And the ghastly fire in Soho--
Seven children at a go—
In the crowd stands Mac the Knife, but he
Isn't asked and doesn't know.

"Don't ask, don't tell" seems to be the motto that allows Mac to get away with murder, literally.

Brecht's characterization of Macheath as a sort of folk hero puts him in a long line of English sung-about guys, like Robin Hood, and reminds us that lots of those heroes actually are outlaws.

Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, and Jesse James are other examples of legendary lawbreakers, but Brecht is forcing us to get past the romantic, idealized version of their exploits and pay attention to the true actions and consequences of such baddies.

Ladies' Man

Even if we're turned off by Mac's evil exploits, he doesn't have any problem with the ladies in the play. In fact, he's got more than he can handle. In one scene he's pretending to marry Polly (probably so he can have his way with her without her protesting). In another he's trying to tell both Polly and Lucy how much he loves each of them.

But, just like his criminality, Mac's way with the women has its dark side. While his exploits and the pickles he gets himself into are kind of funny, they hide another ugly truth. His general disrespect for women (demonstrated by his complete lack of honesty, among other things) is actually really ugly.

Jenny sings of how he used to beat her up when they lived together: "I'd ask him straight to say what he thought he was doing/ Then he'd lash out and knock me headlong down the stairs./ I had the bruises off and on for years" (2.5.105-107). Mac's abusive behavior is not just reserved for the victims of his public crimes.

Just as we idealize folk heroes, sometimes Casanova types are seen as cool. But Brecht really tightens the screws on such cultural patterns and makes us think about the real effects of such behavior. Lying, cheating, and stringing along women is actually a cruel way to live, not a funny or cute one, but Mac is celebrated and forgiven all the same.

Lucky Devil

Okay, so he's a hero even though he's a terrible criminal. He gets all the girls even though he's a huge jerk. Mac is a lucky guy. His biggest stroke of luck comes at the very end of the play when, just as he's about to be hanged for his crimes, the Queen not only pardons him but also gives him a nice noble title and a salary to match.

Even though he was pretty down about his execution just moments before, Mac just takes his luck in stride: "Reprieved! Reprieved! I was sure of it./ When you're most despairing/ The clouds may be clearing" (3.9.355-357). Mac's good luck is absurd—things like that don't happen in real life, right?

Or do they? Those are the questions Brecht wants us to ask when we see Mac's fate. Why does the worst human being on the stage get the best results? The greediest, most violent, lying, evil monster is also the most celebrated.

Brecht wants us to see how those in power got there. He was writing in Berlin during Hitler's rise, so it's not too hard to connect the dots of his criticism. But he's not just mad at Hitler; Brecht wants to shake up the entire structure of society and the injustices that are built into it. He uses Mac to make people think about those injustices and hopefully do something about them.

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