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Mother Courage

by: Bertolt Brecht

Mother Courage

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.