Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1070
Mr. Peachum, reckoning up his accounts, declares that his is an honest employment. Like a lawyer, he acts both for and against thieves. That he should protect them is only fitting, since they afford him a living. In a businesslike manner he decides who among some arrested rogues should escape punishment through bribes and who are so unproductive as to deserve deportation or the gallows. Though Mrs. Peachum finds a favorite of hers on his list, she makes no effort to influence her husband’s decision, for she knows that the weakness of her sex is to allow emotions to dominate practical considerations. She does say, however, that Captain Macheath, a highwayman, stands high in her regard, as well as in that—so she hints to Mr. Peachum—of their daughter Polly. The news upsets her spouse. If the girl marries, her husband might learn family secrets and gain power over them. Peachum orders his wife to warn the girl that marriage and a husband’s domination will mean her ruin. Consequently they are dismayed when Polly announces her marriage to Macheath. They predict grimly that she will not be able to keep Macheath in funds for gambling and philandering, that there will not even be enough money to cause quarrels, that she might as well have married a lord.
The Peachums’ greatest fear is that Macheath will have them hanged and so gain control of the fortune that is intended for Polly. They decide it will be best to dispose of him before he can do that, and they suggest to Polly that she inform on him. Widowhood, they tell her, is a very comfortable state. The girl stubbornly asserts that she loves her dashing highwayman, and she warns Macheath of her parents’ plan to have him arrested. They decide that he should go into hiding for a few weeks until, as Polly hopes, her parents relent.
Parting from his love, Macheath meets his gang at a tavern near Newgate to tell them that for the next week their rendezvous will have to be confined to their private hideout, so that Peachum will think the highwayman is deserting his companions. After his men leave to go about their business, some street women and female pickpockets enter. Two of them cover Macheath with his own pistols as Peachum, accompanied by constables, rushes in to arrest him. When Macheath is carried off to spend the night in Newgate, some of the women express indignation at not having been among those chosen to spring the trap and share in the reward Peachum offers for the highwayman’s capture.
Though Macheath has funds to bribe his jailer to confine him with only a light pair of fetters, it is another matter to deal with Lucy Lockit, the jailer’s daughter. As Macheath freely admits, she is his wife but for the ceremony. Lucy hears of his gallantry toward Polly and can only be convinced of his sincerity by his consenting to an immediate marriage.
Peachum and Lockit, meanwhile, agree to split the reward for Macheath. As he goes over his accounts, however, Peachum finds cause to question his partner’s honesty. One of his men was convicted, although he bribed Lockit to have the man go free. Peachum’s informer, Mrs. Coaxer, was likewise defrauded of information money. The quarrel between Peachum and Lockit is short-lived, however, as they are well aware that each has the power to hang the other. After his talk with Peachum, Lockit warns his daughter that Macheath’s fate is sealed. He advises her to buy herself widow’s weeds and to be cheerful; since she cannot have the highwayman and his money, too, she might as well make use of the time that is left to extract what riches she can from him.
There is no clergyman to be found that day, but Lucy softens toward her philandering lover so far as to agree to see if her father can be bought off. She just consents to help him when Polly appears in search of her husband. Macheath manages to convince Lucy of his faithfulness by disowning Polly, who is carried off by the angry Peachum. After they leave, Lucy agrees to steal her father’s keys so that her lover might escape. Macheath, free once more, joins two of his men at a gambling house. There he makes arrangements to meet them again that evening at another den, where they will plan the next robbery.
Peachum and Lockit are discussing the disposal of assorted loot when they are joined by Mrs. Trapes, a procurer who innocently tells them that Macheath is at that moment with one of her girls. While Peachum and Lockit go off to recapture him, Polly pays a visit to Lucy. Together they bewail their common fate—Macheath’s neglect. Lucy tries to give Polly a poisoned drink. When the suspicious girl refuses to accept it, Lucy decides that perhaps Polly is too miserable to deserve to die.
When Macheath is brought back to prison once more by Peachum and Lockit, both girls fall on their knees before their fathers and beg that his life be spared. Neither parent is moved. Lockit announces that the highwayman will die that day. As he prepares to go to the Old Bailey, Macheath says that he is resigned to his fate, for his death will settle all disputes and please all his wives.
While Macheath in his cell reflects ironically that rich men can escape the gallows but the poor must hang, he is visited by two of his men. He asks them to make sure that Lockit and Peachum are hanged before they themselves are finally strung up. The thieves are followed by the distraught Polly and Lucy, come to bid Macheath farewell. When the jailer announces that four more of his wives, each accompanied by a child, have appeared to say good-bye, Macheath declares that he is ready to meet his fate.
The rabble outside, believing that the poor should be allowed their vices just like the rich, raises so much clamor for Macheath’s reprieve that charges are dropped and he is released in triumph. In the merrymaking that follows, he chooses Polly as his partner, because, he gallantly announces, she is really his wife. From that time on he intends to give up the vices—if not the follies—of the rich.