Mother Courage is, to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin, the play's "untragic heroine." A parasite of the war, she follows the armies of the Thirty Years War, supporting herself and her children with her canteen wagon. She remains opportunistically fixed on her survival, winning her name when hauling a cartful of bread through a city under bombardment. Courage works tirelessly, relentlessly haggling, dealing, and celebrating the war as her breadwinner in her times of prosperity. As Eilif's song suggests, she is the play's wise woman, delivering shrewd commentary on the war throughout the play. For example, the defeats for the great are often victories for the small, the celebration of the soldier's bravery indicates a faltering campaign, the leader pins his failings on his underlings, and the poor require courage. She understands that virtues in wartime become fatal to their possessors. Courage will ironically see her children's deaths from the outset, foretelling their fates in Scene One.
Courage's Solomon-like wisdom does not enable her to oppose the war. The price the war will exact for Courage's livelihood is her children, each of which she will lose while doing business. Though Courage would protect them fiercely—in some sense murderously insisting that her children and her children alone come through the war.
Again, her courage is her will to survive; a will that often requires her cowardice. Unlike Kattrin, Courage will sing the song of capitulation. For example, in Scene Four, she depravedly teaches a soldier to submit to unjust authority and then bitterly learns from her song herself, withdrawing a complaint she planned to lodge herself. In the scene previous, she refuses to recognize the corpse of her executed son, consigning it to the carrion pit. Kattrin's death will not incite her to revolt. Instead, she will resume her journey with the wagon, in some sensed damned to her labor for eternity. As Brecht notes programmatically in the Courage Model Book, Courage, understandably bent on her survival, does not learn, failing to understand that no sacrifice is too great to stop war.
Courage's dumb daughter, Kattrin distinguishes herself as the character who most obviously suffers from the traumas of war. She wears these traumas on her body, since the war robs her of her voice as a child and later leaves her disfigured. Throughout most of the play, she figures as the war's helpless witness, unable to save her brother Eilif from recruitment or Swiss Cheese from the Catholic spies. Later, she will stand by Courage when she refuses to identify Swiss Cheese's body. As Courage continually notes, Kattrin suffers the virtues of kindness and pity, remaining unable to brook the loss of life around her. This kindness manifests itself in particular with regard to children, Kattrin's maternal impulses perhaps standing against Courage's relentless dealing and her resulting failure to protect her children. Ultimately Kattrin will "speak," sacrificing herself to save the children of Halle, and it is appropriate that the play implicitly compares her to the martyr Saint Martin.
The war in particular impinges on Kattrin's sexuality. As Courage notes, she is ever in danger of becoming a "whore"—that is, a victim of rape—and thus must lie low and wait for peacetime before considering marriage. Privately Kattrin will "play the whore" in a sense in her masquerade as Yvette, the camp prostitute, in a bid for sexual recognition. Notably, her disfigurement will ultimately make her marriage impossible.
One of two characters dependent on Mother Courage as their "feedbag," the Chaplain initially appears as a cynical, wooden character. He remains loyal to the Swedish monarchy and the campaign as a war of religion though cannot but notice the horrors around him, for example, his reaction to Eilif's raid. This cynicism reaches its height after the surprise attack by the Catholics, which rips him from his social station and leaves him precariously dependent on Courage's wagon. Bitterly, the Chaplain will advise Courage to buy new supplies. The war can only prevail. After all, though degrading, it provides for all base human needs—eating, drinking, screwing, and sleeping. Like love, it will always find a way to go on.
The Chaplain also reveals more sympathetic qualities, particularly when he defies Courage and attempts to save the local peasants at the Battle of Magdeburg. To this point, he appears as a sort of outsider, refraining from intervening in Courage's practices for fear of jeopardizing his position. At Magdeburg, the Model Book shows him recalling a sense of his former importance and understanding himself as someone oppressed by the war. Indeed, as he will tell the Cook, his life as a tramp makes it impossible to return to the priesthood and all its attendant beliefs.
Eventually the Chaplain falls for Courage. Focused on survival, she denies him, refusing his demands that she drop her defenses and let her heart speak. The arrival of the Cook will spark a rivalry over both Courage's affections and bread. When both men believe that Courage has rejected them, they reminisce about the good times they shared together in the service of the Swedish Commander. Apparently, like Courage, they have learned little from their suffering during the war.
The Chaplain's rival for Courage's affections and bread, the Cook is an aging Don Juan, a bachelor long past his days as the dashing Peter Piper who seduced girls like Yvette. Darkly ironic, he is aware of the war as a continuation of business as usual, continually unmasking the divinely inspired military campaign as another massive profit scheme. In understanding his social position, he bears no loyalty to the rulers who would exploit him. As he tells the Chaplain, he does not eat the King's bread but bakes it. He comes to Mother Courage when penniless, their courtship consisting of their accounts of their respective ruin.