Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage and Her Children Themes

Lower Classes During Wartime

From the first image--a nameless "Sergeant" and "Recruiting Officer" freezing in a field--Brecht's play sets its focus firmly on the lower classes affected by wars. No historically significant figures (General Tilly or the Kaiser, for example) make appearances in the play, being mentioned only in passing. Mother Courage, her family, and her companions are all the "little people," and it is their story which Brecht finds interesting. They usually are unable to extract any benefit from the war. Notice, too, how often minor characters in the play are given only a profession or a description rather than a proper name: we have peasants, numerous soldiers, generals, clerks, captains, officers, and even chaplains. This is not just because they are stock characters.

Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 1, 5, 11, and 12.


"Parachutists are dropped like bombs," Brecht once wrote, "and bombs do not need courage. Real courage would be refusing to get into the plane in the first place." This idea points toward the remarkable irony with which Mother Courage's nickname is imbued. That is, the play suggests that her courage is as questionable as her motherhood. She gets her nickname from driving loaves through the bombardment of Riga before they become too moldy (see Scene 1), but this might be rashness rather than true courage. Moreover, in light of Brecht's lines above, real courageousness seems to involve opting out of the war and its capitalism altogether, something Mother Courage never does, although it is hard to see her alternatives as one of the "little people."

Mother Courage herself seems to see this idea: real courage requires persistence enough to make a significant, life-threatening change, as Kattrin does at the end of Scene 11. Consider when Mother Courage advises the young soldier about the Great Capitulation in Scene 4--but this insight does not survive with her to the end of the play.

Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 1, 2, 4, and 11.

Families and Parenthood

The play examines war not just as a capitalistic system but also on a domestic level. It is central to the emotional impact of the play that it is about a mother and her children. Mother Courage's treatment of (particularly) Kattrin and Swiss Cheese emphasizes the difficulty of combining her role of "mother" with her professional role of "canteen woman." One of the play's key questions is whether her trading helps or hinders her family--it is the only way for them to survive, but it results in the deaths of all of her children. Significantly, whenever one of the children die, Brecht ensures that Mother Courage is distracted by business affairs.

It also is interesting to examine Kattrin's journey (as by far the most important of the children) through the play in light of how far her development, desires, and growing sexuality are repressed and damaged by the fact that her mother is a wartime canteen woman.

Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 1, 3, 9, 11, and 12.

War as Capitalism

Brecht was a lifelong socialist. After the First World War, the idea began to become more popular that war was often associated with financial gain. From this point of view, Brecht's purpose in writing the play was to show that in wartime "you need a big pair of scissors in order to get your cut." War, as the play portrays it, is itself a capitalist system designed to make profit for just a few players, and it is perpetuated for that purpose.

Therefore, despite the fact that she is constantly trying to make profit from it, Mother Courage is destined to lose by trading during the war; only the fat cats at the top of the system have a real chance of profiting from it. People in this play are always looking to get their cut, large or small, and it is no accident that the original text repeats the verb kriegen, to "wage"--that is, to wage war (Krieg), but also meaning to "get" or "acquire."

Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 1, 3, and 7.

Silence and Dumbness

Kattrin's dumbness is deeply symbolic. That is, real virtue and goodness are silenced in the time of war. Brecht even makes clear that Kattrin's dumbness is due directly to the war: "a soldier stuck something in her mouth when she was small." The play itself deals similarly with several significant silences: Mother Courage's refusal to complain after the Song of the Great Capitulation, the chaplain's denial of his own faith when the Catholics arrive in Scene 3 ("All good Catholics here!"), and the way Mother Courage denies her own son at the end of the scene, first in life and then in death. Weigel's silent scream at the end of this scene is itself an emblem of how war neuters human response.

An antithesis to dumbness is eloquence, and Kattrin's death (itself conducted through loud noises, and answered by the noises from the town after she has died) is perhaps the single most eloquent act in the play.

Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 3, 6, and 11.


A common critical discussion about the play is whether or not it is a tragedy. Brecht perhaps did not write it as one, titling his play "A Chronicle of the Thirty Years' War" and aiming to make connections to contemporary issues. But some critics have argued that, in line with Brecht's guidance about Mother Courage's failure to learn, the play is perhaps Mother Courage's tragedy. After all, her children die and she never profits appreciably from the war.

Such a discussion depends much on how "tragedy" is defined. For instance, it is worth noting that, in addition to Mother Courage's failure to learn, Brecht assigns each of her children a "tragic flaw" which is repeated throughout the play: Eilif is "dashing," Swiss Cheese is "honest," and Kattrin "suffers from pity."

To research this theme more, after reading a theoretical work on tragedy (such as Aristotle's Poetics), one could ask the following questions: is Mother Courage herself responsible for the events of the play? That is, would events go differently if only Mother Courage were different? Does the play arouse a catharsis as the curtain comes down? Is the play merely sad or a true tragedy?

Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 1, 4, 6, and 12.


Brecht's view of religion in this play is blatantly clear: it is of little help, and is often a hindrance, during wartime. Religion is portrayed through the sniveling, hypocritical figure of the Chaplain, and it has little positive role to play. The Chaplain changes his allegiances (for example, dusting out his clerical robes when peace is announced) at the drop of a hat (see Scene 6 for the point at which his character becomes clearest). At the very end, the prayers of the peasants are juxtaposed with Kattrin climbing the rooftop, suggesting ineffective inaction among the religious versus effective action by Kattrin.

The text, like all of Brecht's work, is steeped in a complex knowledge of the Old Testament, but the play itself makes little concession to religion as a positive influence on society.

Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 2, 3, 6, and 8.

War as Order

In the first scene, there is a grotesque description of how the citizens of the world rely on war to hold civilization together. An audience member might be forgiven for dismissing it as an opening joke. Yet, the idea of war as order, "peace as war undeclared," as the Chaplain has it--recurs throughout, and the Chaplain believably expresses very similar sentiments at various points in the play.

Mother Courage herself is an emblem of the way the play's society seems to depend upon the perpetuity of war and, for the brief time while peace is declared, peace is often described as a disaster rather than the end of a devastating war. Is war actually the axis on which the society of the play turns? Is the nature of man antagonistic rather than cooperative?

Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 1, 5, 6, 7, and 8.

Feeding the War

Scene 2, outside and inside the General's kitchen, introduces the Cook and the idea of "feeding the war." The Cook's name is "Lamb," and though he becomes a sacrificial lamb later in the play when the food runs out, the idea of being a lamb also suggests a way that his role reflects the mission of the whole army. The play opens with a conversation between a sergeant and a recruiting officer about how difficult it is to find enough soldiers to fill the quota--the war's appetite is greater than the available resources can satisfy. The Cook and the whole army feed society's appetite for war.

Throughout the play, nevertheless, starvation recurs. The lack of men in Scene 1 becomes the more literal lack of good meat in Scene 2. The lack of such food, by the bleak ending of the play, has become manifest across the whole country. In Scene 9, trade has had to stop because food is no longer growing.

Key scenes to analyze in writing about this theme: Scenes 1, 2, 8, and 9.