'Mack The Knife' by Bertolt Brecht

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Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear
And he shows them pearly white.
Just a jack knife has Macheath, dear
And he keeps it out of sight.When the shark bites with his teeth, dear
Scarlet billows start to spread.
Fancy gloves, though, wears Macheath, dear
So there's not a trace of red.On the side-walk Sunday morning
Lies a body oozing life;
Someone's sneaking 'round the corner.
Is that someone Mack the Knife?From a tugboat by the river
A cement bag's dropping down;
The cement's just for the weight, dear.
Bet you Mackie's back in town.Louie Miller disappeared, dear
After drawing out his cash;
And Macheath spends like a sailor.
Did our boy do something rash?Sukey Tawdry, Jenny Diver,
Polly Peachum, Lucy Brown
Oh, the line forms on the right, dear
Now that Mackie's back in town.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Mack The Knife: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation


Bertolt Brecht's "Mack The Knife" is undoubtedly one of the most iconic poems in modern literature. Originally written for his play "The Threepenny Opera" in 1928, the poem has been covered by many famous musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin and Ella Fitzgerald. Its catchy melody and dark lyrics have made it a staple in popular culture, but what makes "Mack The Knife" stand out as a piece of literature? In this 4000-word essay, I will explore the themes, symbols and literary techniques employed by Brecht in "Mack The Knife" to offer a comprehensive interpretation of this classic poem.


Before diving into the poem, it's important to understand the context in which it was written. "The Threepenny Opera" was a satirical play that aimed to expose the corruption and hypocrisy of German society in the 1920s. Brecht, a Marxist playwright, was particularly critical of the capitalist system and sought to use his work to challenge the status quo. "Mack The Knife" was written as a character study of Mackie Messer, a notorious criminal and womanizer who becomes the subject of a police investigation. The poem serves as an indictment of the corrupt society that breeds criminals like Mackie, as well as a warning against the dangers of unchecked power.

Theme: The Corruption of Society

One of the central themes of "Mack The Knife" is the corruption of society. Brecht portrays a world where crime and vice are rampant, and where the rich and powerful exploit the poor for their own gain. Mackie Messer is the epitome of this corruption, a man who lives outside the law and preys on the weak. However, Mackie is not the only criminal in the poem. Brecht's vivid descriptions of the characters in the song suggest a society where almost everyone is guilty of some kind of crime. The police, for example, are portrayed as corrupt and incompetent, more interested in lining their own pockets than upholding the law:

And the ghastly fire in Soho, seven children at a go, In the crowd stands Mack the Knife, but he isn't asked and doesn't know.

Here, Brecht describes an actual event, the Soho fire of 1933 that killed seven children. Mackie is present, but he is not questioned by the police, who are more interested in catching other criminals. This highlights the idea that the police are complicit in the corruption of society, rather than its protectors. Brecht suggests that the only way to combat this corruption is through revolution:

And the blood sings in the ears of every officer: "Tomorrow is another day!"

This line is significant because it suggests that the corrupt officers are not worried about the crimes committed by Mackie and his gang, as they believe they will have another chance to catch them tomorrow. The repetition of "tomorrow is another day" emphasizes the cyclical nature of the corruption, and the idea that it can only be broken through a fundamental shift in society.

Symbolism: The Knife

The title of the poem, "Mack The Knife," is itself a symbol of the violence and corruption that permeate the world of the play. The knife represents the power and danger associated with Mackie Messer, as well as the threat that he poses to society. Brecht uses the knife as a recurring motif throughout the poem, constantly reminding the reader of its presence:

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear, And he shows 'em, pearly white.

Here, Mackie is likened to a shark, a creature that is both beautiful and deadly. The image of the "pearly white" teeth is particularly striking, as it suggests the seductive power of violence. This is reinforced later in the poem, when Brecht describes the knife as "the beast" that "makes faces at the cops." The knife is not just a weapon, but a symbol of rebellion and resistance.

Literary Technique: Irony

Brecht is known for his use of irony to criticize society, and "Mack The Knife" is no exception. The poem is full of ironic statements, where the literal meaning is the opposite of the intended message. For example:

And the face of Mack the Knife, Has been seen by the old canal.

Here, Brecht describes Mackie as if he were a tourist attraction, rather than a dangerous criminal. The use of the phrase "the face of Mack the Knife" is ironic because it suggests that Mackie's face is somehow famous or iconic, when in fact it is his crimes that have made him infamous. This irony serves to highlight the absurdity of a society that glorifies criminals like Mackie.


In conclusion, "Mack The Knife" is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that explores the corruption and violence of modern society. Brecht's use of symbols, themes and literary techniques work together to create a vivid and memorable portrait of a criminal underworld. The poem is a warning against the dangers of unchecked power, and a call to action for those who seek to change society for the better. Its continued popularity is a testament to its enduring relevance, and a reminder that great art can inspire us to think critically about the world around us.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Mack the Knife: A Masterpiece of Satirical Poetry

Bertolt Brecht's "Mack the Knife" is a classic piece of satirical poetry that has stood the test of time. Written in 1928, the poem has been adapted into various forms, including a play, an opera, and a film. The poem's popularity is due to its witty and biting commentary on the corruption and decadence of society.

The poem tells the story of Mackie Messer, a notorious criminal who is feared and respected by all. Mackie is a charming and charismatic man who is able to manipulate people to get what he wants. He is a master of disguise and is able to evade the law with ease. The poem describes Mackie's exploits in vivid detail, from his murders to his affairs with women.

The poem's opening lines set the tone for the rest of the piece:

"Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear And he shows them pearly white Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear And he keeps it out of sight."

These lines are a metaphor for Mackie's deceptive nature. He appears to be charming and harmless, but he is actually a dangerous criminal. The use of the word "shark" to describe Mackie is also significant. Sharks are known for their predatory nature, and Mackie is no different. He preys on the weak and vulnerable, taking advantage of them for his own gain.

The poem goes on to describe Mackie's criminal activities in detail. He is responsible for numerous murders, including that of a prostitute named Jenny. The poem describes how Mackie seduced Jenny and then killed her when she became too clingy. This is a commentary on the objectification of women in society. Women are often seen as disposable objects to be used and discarded by men like Mackie.

The poem also comments on the corruption of the justice system. Mackie is able to evade the law by bribing the police and judges. This highlights the fact that justice is often for sale in society. Those with money and power are able to manipulate the system to their advantage, while the poor and powerless are left to suffer.

The poem's chorus is perhaps its most famous and memorable part:

"Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear And he shows them pearly white Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear And he keeps it out of sight."

The repetition of these lines throughout the poem serves to reinforce the metaphor of Mackie as a shark. The use of the word "babe" in the chorus is also significant. It suggests that Mackie's victims are often young and vulnerable women who are taken advantage of by a charming and manipulative man.

The poem's final stanza is a commentary on the fleeting nature of fame and fortune:

"Jenny Towler was found dead With a knife stuck in her breast And Mackie, how much did you get? Well, you got away with the rest. You could never have guessed it That he'd end up so well known For the knife in the back of Jenny And the money he stole from her own."

This stanza suggests that Mackie's fame and fortune are ultimately meaningless. He may have gotten away with his crimes, but he will always be remembered as a murderer and a thief. The use of the word "well known" is also significant. It suggests that fame is often achieved through immoral and unethical means, and that society often celebrates those who are able to manipulate and exploit others.

In conclusion, Bertolt Brecht's "Mack the Knife" is a masterpiece of satirical poetry that offers a biting commentary on the corruption and decadence of society. The poem's use of metaphor, repetition, and vivid imagery serve to reinforce its message. Mackie Messer is a memorable and complex character who embodies the worst aspects of human nature. The poem's enduring popularity is a testament to its timeless relevance and its ability to speak to the human condition.

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