We'll say it now and we'll say it again: Mother Courage is no hero. She is obsessed with capitalizing on a war that ultimately destroys her family. But hey, that doesn't mean we can't like her. Just because she doesn't save the world doesn't mean we don't find her endearing, right? Plus, we here at Shmoop think Mother Courage deserves a little more credit for all she goes through. It's not like life in 1600's Europe was very easy or anything.
Let's start with what we know about Mother Courage's life. Her real name: Anna Fierling. Her hometown: Bamberg, Germany. Her children: three of them, all from different fathers. Ok, but what else can we find out?
Fortunately, a lot can be gleaned about Mother Courage from all that singing she does. Consider The Song of the Girl and the Soldier (II, 179-216), which she sings together with Eilif in Scene II. Before he begins singing, Eilif explains that his father was a great soldier, according to his mother:
THE GENERAL: I'll wager your father was a soldier.
EILIF: A great soldier, I been told. My mother warned me about it. There's a song I know. (II, 174-175)
The song is something his mother used to sing to dissuade him from joining the army. It tells the story of a foolhardy soldier who decides to wade into a freezing river despite the warnings of an anonymous girl. Later, his fellow soldiers tell her that a swift current took him under, and he died.
Now, the "girl" in Mother Courage's song is nameless, but we could easily imagine that this is a story from Mother Courage's own youth. Eilif seems to suggest this himself. And it would definitely explain her insistence that her children remain safely away from the war…and the river.
It would also explain why she looks down on "special virtues" like courage, as when she tells the cook, shortly before singing this song:
It's always the same; whenever there's a load of special virtues around it means something stinks. (II, 158-159)
We can't know for sure whether Mother Courage is singing about herself, but in any case, her song certainly speaks (er, sings) to an experience of war as a foolish waste of life.
Then again, it also wouldn't be the only song Mother Courage sings about her younger years. In The Song of The Grand Capitulation (IV, 94-145), Courage tells the story of how she learned it's best to play by the rules, rather than resist the coming of war. The song is in the first person, which strengthens the claim that she's singing about herself. She begins with a description of herself as a girl. Let's take a look:
Back when I was young, I was brought to realize
What a very special person I must be
(Not just any old cottager's daughter, what with my looks
and my talents and my urge towards Higher Things) […]
Now, this certainly doesn't describe Courage any more. We could look long and hard and still not find in her an "urge towards Higher Things." Well, her song tells us why. The refrain suggests that everything changed for her when the war started, and that it was then that she lost her faith in those "Higher Things":
Then I heard a tit
Chirp: Wait a bit!
And you'll be marching with the band
In step, responding to command
And striking up your little dance:
Now we advance.
And now: parade, form square!
Then men swear God's there—
Not the faintest chance! (IV, 94-110)
We can envision Mother Courage witnessing the onset of the war, with soldiers blindly following command, heading off to a so-called war of faith, only to waste their lives in the name of an empty virtue, dying like the young man in The Song of the Girl and the Soldier. In the end, her song implies that all things succumb to the war, even God Himself.
With this song, we can start to understand why Mother Courage tries to profit off the war. She accepts it as an inevitable reality. She has lost hope that any resistance to war could be possible—this hope died with her faith. By doggedly trying to capitalize on the war, she is trying to make it work for her. Her obsession with profit is a way to compensate for not having the power to stop the senseless brutality. Whatever floats her boat, we guess.
What's the point of all this? Well, it's easy to see Mother Courage as selfish and cold-hearted, as a woman who is ultimately unwilling to sacrifice her business to save her children. In the very first scene, she refers to war as a "trade" (I, 158), and in the first song she sings, she characterizes herself as war's accomplice, helping to keep the war going by boozing up the soldiers:
Captains, how can you make them face it—
Marching to death without a brew?
Courage has rum with which to lace it
And boil their souls and bodies through. (I, 56-59)
Yeah, these lines don't exactly make us feel sympathetic towards Courage. It's hard not to agree with the chaplain when he tells her, in Scene VIII, "that whosoever sups with the devil needs a long spoon" (VIII, 146). If she's willing to capitalize on death, then she has to accept the risk that her own family will meet the same fate. Who's she to say, "War be damned" (VI, 285)? Sometimes it seems like Mother Courage gets what she deserves.
But if we look closely, we see a more complex picture. We see a woman who has been dehumanized by war and the cost of surviving its brutal reality. Elie Wiesel, a writer and a survivor of the Holocaust, said in his 1986 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "War leaves no victors, only victims." And Brecht's play portrays a similar reality; Mother Courage is not a hero, because she, too, is a victim of war. She is the victim of a world order in which war and the need for profit threaten to destroy all human values.