Study Guide

The Threepenny Opera Greed

By Bertolt Brecht

Greed

And Schmul Meier, reported missing

Like so many wealthy men:

Mac the Knife acquired his cash box.

God alone knows how or when. (P.21-24)

This verse reveals some anti-Semitism, a topic that will become very important as the Nazi party gains power in Germany. A common Jewish name, Schmul, is used for the greedy moneylender (see that cash box), a common stereotype for Jewish people. Mac's violence against Schmul Meier reflects the aggressive political atmosphere the play premiered in.

Betray your own brother, you rogue

And sell your old woman, you rat.

You think the Lord God's just a joke?

He'll give you His Judgement on that. (1.1.12-15)

No one in The Threepenny Opera is really a shining example of humanity. All of them are greedy sons of guns, so these lines are a little bit ironic. The idea that someone would sell out their brother or sell their mother or wife (is that what "old woman" refers to?) is just the epitome of greed, and supposedly there will be justice. However, the reference to "a joke" does introduce some doubt that the greedy will get theirs in the end.

PEACHUM to the audience. Something new is needed. My business is too hard, for my business is arousing human sympathy. There are few things that stir men's souls, just a few, but the trouble is that after repeated use they lose their effect. (1.1.16-20)

It's greed versus greed. Peachum's business is competing with the greed of the rich people, trying to get them to feel just enough sympathy to throw a few coins a beggar's way. But he himself is greedy too, always looking for another way to tug on their heartstrings and pull another penny out of them.

PEACHUM. Celia, the way you chuck your daughter around anyone would think I was a millionaire. Wanting to marry her off? The idea! Do you think this lousy business of ours would survive a week if those ragamuffins our customers had nothing better than our legs to look at? A husband! (1.1.170-174)

Mr. Peachum is unhappy that his daughter is going to be married, but not for the reasons you might expect. It's not that he wants to make sure she's happy or has a good enough partner. Nope, he's interested in how to attract customers if his good-looking daughter isn't around. His greed outweighs his concern for his daughter's welfare.

PEACHUM. Such are the basic rights of man's existence.

But do we know of anything suggesting

That when a thing's a right one gets it? No!

To get one's rights would be most interesting

But our condition's such it can't be so. (1.234-238)

Peachum laments the difference between what people supposedly have a right to, like basic human rights, and what they actually get. Apparently, that gap between rights and reality are what creates the conditions for the greed that we see running rampant in the play.

PEACHUM. Let's say your brother's close to you

But if there's not enough for two

He'll kick you smartly in the face (1.3.263-265)

Sibling rivalry is at its most basic here: fighting for a scrap of food. If you've ever seen a litter of puppies or kittens fighting over who gets to be closest to mom, you'll know what Peachum's talking about.

PEACHUM. Get a move on, you'd all be rotting in the sewers of Turnbridge if in my sleepless nights I hadn't worked out how to squeeze a penny out of your poverty. (3.7.85-87)

Don't let the alliteration fool you; "a penny out of your poverty" is nothing cute. Peachum's harsh treatment of the beggars who depend on him for permission to beg is not cool, and it's rooted in his greed. He sees a way to make a profit in everything, even those who have nothing.

MAC. If you let yourself be bribed, you'd have to leave the country for a start. You certainly would. You'd need enough to live on for the rest of your life. A thousand pounds, eh? Don't say anything! In twenty minutes I'll tell you whether you can have your thousand pounds by noon. (3.9.35-39)

If you're not used to bribing cops—which we certainly hope you are not—you might not recognize that that is exactly what Mac's doing. The double-talk, which assumes that the cop wouldn't let himself be bribed, is appealing to Jackie's greed. Mac describes what Jackie would need if he were bribed, and then promises it to him.

MATTHEW. You see, Captain, we thought you'd understand. You see, a Coronation doesn't happen every day. They've got to make some money while there's a chance. They send you their best wishes. (3.9.243-246)

Captain, in this case, is Mac. Matthew is reporting back to the gang leader. Even though Mac's in jail, he's still the boss. But his power is slipping, being overtaken by his gang's greed. The crowds gathered for the Queen's coronation are too good of a target to miss, so loyalty loses to greed.

Perhaps ambition used too sharp a goad

It drove us to these heights from which we swing

Hacked at by greedy starlings on the wing,

Like horses' droppings on a country road. (3.9.293-296)

Attack of the figurative language! First of all, we get ambition personified, poking at people with a goad to make them want more and more. Then the greedy, ambitious people are compared to horse manure, that greedy flying birds pick at.