Study Guide

The Threepenny Opera Hypocrisy

By Bertolt Brecht


PEACHUM. Licenses are delivered to professionals only. Points in a businesslike way to a map of the city. London is divided into fourteen districts. Any man who intends to practice the craft of begging in any one of them needs a licence from Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum & Co. Why, anybody could come along—a pretty to his baser instincts. (1.1.83-88)

What does this have to do with hypocrisy? Well, first of all, the professionalization of begging would be a hilarious joke if it weren't a real thing. But the idea is that Mr. Peachum is behaving as though he were a legit businessman, when really he's a con artist. And the idea that he is protecting beggars from their "baser instincts" is completely hypocritical—he's giving into his own baser instincts by taking their money.

JAKE. The plover's eggs are from Selfridge's. There was supposed to be a bucket of foie gras. But Jimmy ate it on the way, he was mad because it had a hole in it.

WALTER. We don't talk about holes in polite society. (1.2.192-195)

In case you're wondering, a plover is a type of wading bird, and its eggs are such an exquisite delicacy that they're now illegal to gather. And foie gras, too, is an expensive dish (liver pâté). After their talking about all this fancy food and making claims about being in polite society, we can't help but point out that these hypocrites stole the fancy food.

MAC. Polly, this is Tiger Brown, what do you say old man? Slaps him on the back. 

And these are my friends, Jackie, I imagine you've seen them all before.

BROWN. pained I'm here unofficially, Mac. (1.2.390-393)

Tiger, a.k.a. Jackie Brown is the chief of police, so his great familiarity with Mac and the gang is problematic. His claim to be at the wedding "unofficially" means that he knows he shouldn't be there, and this lame attempt to appear law-abiding is just an example of the hypocrisy of the gangster-cop.

PEACHUM. Oh, so they're friends, are they? The sheriff and Public Enemy No. 1, ha, they must be the only friends in this city. (1.3.189-191)

More irony, folks. Peachum's rhetorical question indicates that he's not surprised that this odd couple are besties. The sheriff and London's most wanted are in cahoots, but because Peachum is so tuned into society's hypocrisy through his own dirty dealings, he finds the BFFs to be hilarious.

At lunch you pick the best wine on the list

Then meditate till half-past four.

At tea: what high ideals you are pursuing!

Then soon as night falls you'll be up and doing. (2.4.207-210)

The first three lines of the stanza refer to virtuous or esteemed activities. Picking the best wine on the list indicates good taste and the money to match. Meditating might point to a disciplined character. Pursuing high ideals would mean that you are thoughtful. But all of that is just a front once nighttime comes and the lust sets in.

BROWN. If only my men don't catch him! Let's hope to God he's riding out beyond Highgate Heath, thinking of his Jackie. (2.6.6-8)

Sheriff Brown should be thinking about how to catch a terrible criminal like Mac, not wishing for the no-good guy's escape. When he's in front of citizens like the Peachums, Brown acts as though he were doing his job, but here we see his true thoughts, which are far from lawful.

PEACHUM. Wouldn't you care to lie down awhile? Just close your eyes and pretend nothing has happened. Imagine you're on a lovely green meadow with little white clouds overhead. The main thing is to forget about all those ghastly things, those that are past, and most of all, those that are still to come. (2.6.326-330)

Even though Peachum is talking to Sheriff Brown, he might also be zinging the audience a bit for hypocritical attitudes. This ostrich behavior, burying one's head in the sand and ignoring trouble, could be likened to hypocrisy, because it isn't authentic and would prefer to ignore ugliness.

PEACHUM. I discovered that though the rich of this earth find no difficulty in creating misery, they can't bear to see it. (3.7.87-89)

Mr. Peachum lives off of rich people's hypocrisy. That is, he gets them to feel sorry for his beggars through enhancing their pitiful appearances, and therefore give more money. Of course, that little act allows them to ignore their guilt or complicity in creating the inequality that leaves some people begging on the street and others with jingle in their pockets.

PEACHUM. The law was made for one thing alone, for the exploitation of those who don't understand it, or are prevented by naked misery from obeying it. And anyone who wants a crumb of this exploitation for himself must obey the law strictly. (3.7.141-145)

Hypocrisy, for Brecht, is not just a social issue. It's encoded into the law. Rather than protecting the weak, the law actually exploits them and protects the powerful. Peachum's wry comment is that anyone with the means to understand how to twist the law can use it to their advantage, while those who might actually need the law's protection aren't equipped to exploit it.

You know the ever-curious Brecht

Whose songs you liked to hum.

He asked, too often for your peace

Where rich men get their riches from.

So then you drove him overseas. (3.7.288-292)

Oh, snap. Brecht takes his audiences to task. They might like him as an entertainer, for writing some catchy tunes, but when he actually tries to make a point or criticize society, his fans turn against him and the lot of hypocrites let him be exiled to far off lands rather than standing up for their favorite artist.