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The Tribulations of War - An Essay by Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and her Children

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The Tribulations of War

        War is death, pain, suffering, loss, politics, victory, defeat, hope, and despair. War can also be a land of opportunity. Mother Courage and her Children, a play by Bertolt Brecht, is a play based on the tribulations of the Thirty Year’s War which takes place in the year 1624. Mother Courage, the protagonist, is faced with the hardship of how to support her family throughout what would be tough times. In Mother Courage and her Children, war is necessary to make a profit; however, it is not acceptable because in order to do that the humane treatment of people, as well as family, is sacrificed along the way. War is necessary because it provides markets that were not present beforehand, provides a solution for conflicts, and helps keep territories organized.  Profiteering off of war is like a double-edged sword. There are two ways in order to make a profit; a moral and immoral way. Mother Courage has an unacceptable career because she takes advantage of the sorrows of another, as well as changing her views and morals in order to make any sale. Moreover, she also places her children in danger by traveling to the root of evil. In my opinion, there are certain characteristics that distinguish the differences between immoral and moral conduct, and in Mother Courage and Her Children Mother Courage violates all of that moral conduct. A recruiting officer once claims, “There’s no loyalty left in the world, no trust, no faith, no sense of honor” (Brecht 23). Mother Courage is the epitome of this quotation. She is selfish by nature, and her profiteering wrecks her family as well as anyone else who stands in her way.

        Throughout the entire play there is always some battle occurring. War provides organization because before the war everything was in disarray:

You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization…It takes a war to fix that. In a war, everyone registers, everyone’s name’s on a list. Their shoes are stacked, their corn’s in the bag, you count it all up – cattle, men, et cetera- and you take it away! That’s the story: no organization, no war! (Brecht 23)

The Sergeant believes that war is necessary because the war provides him with organization as well as total control over any situation. Before a war there was no records, no surveys handed out because everybody did their own thing. Peace was a time of disorganization, “anything goes, no one gives a damn” (Brecht 23). This is because the Sergeant believes that organization goes hand in hand with control. Control and organization are related to one another because in order for something be organized there needs to be a central power to enforce it. This central power that needs to enforce the organization has to be in control in order for a situation to take off. This is relevant in war because  It also gives people a place in the world as well as goals to accomplish. There are a myriad of goals that can be accomplished, whether it is climbing the ranks as an officer or being a nurse and helping wounded soldiers. There is always a new goal to strive for or in this case, “there are always new heroes” (Brecht 75). This in turn, provided the poor with the courage that this could be a time of prosperity because “war satisfies all needs” (Brecht 76).One of the needs that the Chaplain discusses about is the need for income. Furthermore, the war is a necessity because it is a dispute over religion, not just power. As the Chaplain puts it, “… but to fall in this war is not a misfortune, it’s a blessing. This is a war of religion. Not just any old war but a special one, a religious one, and there fore pleasing unto God” (Brecht 46). The Thirty Year’s War was indeed a war of religion. The war was primarily based on the profound religious antagonism provoked by the Germans because of the events of the Protestant Reformation. Religious animosity, especially among non-German supporters of the contending Protestant and Roman Catholic factions helped broaden the war (Thirty Year’s War 1). Therefore, the Chaplain was not out of context claiming that dying for this war was a blessing. This was a common belief during the time period of 1618 and 1648, which is when the war existed.

The want and need for profit during the war becomes a central issue throughout the play. This is because war and business is a central motif throughout the play because it provides a market for Mother Courage. Courage would buy supplies and sell them at a higher price to whichever side wanted to buy it. Courage changes her views and morals in order to make a profit any way she can.  For example, when the Catholics progresses towards the territory in which Mother Courage is located, she instantly takes down her flag she had for twenty-five years. Also Courage hastily changes religions:

I told I was against the Antichrist, who is a Swede with horns on his head… When they cross-examined me, I always asked where I could buy holy candles a bit cheaper. I know these things because Swiss Cheese’s father was a Catholic and made jokes about it. They didn’t quite believe me but they needed a canteen, so they turned a blind eye. (Brecht 52)

In this situation Mother Courage goes against her beliefs and in turn makes a profit because she sells a canteen to the opposite religion in which she was supporting. This is an example of an immoral way to make a profit in a war. In my opinion, this is an immoral because she is using people in order to benefit. In a way Courage is like a parasite, she is only there to benefit for herself and while doing that she hurts her hosts. The hosts in this case would be the two sides of the Thirty Year War. These are examples of how conniving she is because she would do anything just to benefit herself. Another example is when Mother Courage exchanges guilders for army bullets. The officer needs the money to buy liquor, and convinces her by claiming that, “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours… You can resell ‘em for five guilders, maybe eight, to the Ordnance Officer of the Fourth Regiment. All you have to do is give him a receipt for twelve. He hasn’t a bullet left” (Brecht 42).  Although Mother Courage is aware that if she gets caught with the bullets she will be court-martialed, she still does not refuse because she is willing to go that extra yard to gain those extra guilders. Moreover, Mother Courage is aware of the consequences because she says, “You sell your bullets, you bastards, and send your men out to fight with nothing to shoot with” (Brecht 42). Yet she still makes the exchange in order to make a deal. This relates back to the immoral ways that Mother Courage pursues in order for her to make a profit. In the beginning of scene seven Brecht states, “The Chaplain, Mother Courage, and her daughter Kattrin pull the wagon, and new wares are hanging from it. Mother Courage wears a necklace of silver coins” (Brecht 82). I personally believe that it is unfair that during a time of war Mother Courage flaunts a necklace made up of silver coins. Her earnings increase as the war lingers. This is evident because she has new wares as well as a new necklace so this can only prove that Mother Courage is making steep profits. Since war is necessary and unavoidable there should be certain ethical guidelines in which war profiteers should follow because it is morally unacceptable that a person can profit off of another’s sorrows. This is evident due to her unwillingness to help a human beings out in a time of desperate need as well as profiting over one’s misfortunes.

Mother Courage is ruthless in every aspect of her life, whether it is for business or with her family. Throughout the war there are plenty of opportunities in which Mother Courage can commit a good deed; however she never does unless there is some benefit towards her. A peasant asks Mother Courage for a piece of linen because his arm is severed and she replies, “I can’t give you any. With all I have to pay out – taxes, duties, bribes… I’m giving nothing. I don’t dare, I have myself to think of” (Brecht 71). In a situation like that, when a man without an arm is asking for a simple piece of linen, what kind of person does it take to say no? It takes a person who is self-centered, gluttonous, as well as merciless. These are all characteristics of Mother Courage because she would go to any lengths to get what she wanted.

This is also evident through her treatment of her children. In the first scene, Mother Courage briefly describes two of her three children in a patronizing manner by claiming one is stupid, and the other is a mute: “I have a stupid one as well but he’s honest. The daughter is nothing. At least, she doesn’t talk: we must be thankful for small mercies” (Brecht 37). Mother Courage’s does not have any priorities for her children. I believe this is true because of her actions of raising her children right alongside the line of fire. Although Courage does provide financial support, she does not provide the safe living environment that should be essential to any upcoming children. This brings us to her name of Mother Courage that is incredibly ironic because how can one be called a mother when she does not even appreciate her kids. Courage does not have a main concern for her family because all she is cares about is how much money she can make. She does not even think highly of her own children because she describes her children as a stupid and also a mute, “Between the two of you, you’ll be the death of me yet. I’d rather take care of a bunch of fleas” (Brecht 53). Mother Courage views the responsibility of her children as a burden instead of a blessing. This relates to her self-centered attitude because Mother Courage is confined to the limits of her children. Courage feels like they are holding her back as well as hindering her level of income.

 Throughout the play she loses all three of her children to the war, yet she still continues to think that the war is the best place to make a living regardless of the threat of death to her children. A mother should want to protect her children, not sacrifice them as what she does with Swiss Cheese:

Look at him, see if you know him. Do you know him? (Mother Courage shakes her head.) What? You never saw him before he took that meal? (Mother Courage shakes her head.) Lift him up. Throw him in the carrion pit. He has no one that knows him. (Brecht 64)

Mother Courage denied her son his right to live, so that she can leave the situation that they were both in without any trouble. Imagine seeing your mother, the one who they call Mother Courage, and just watched her walk away and leave. That is not what a mother should do, but yet she continues to sacrifice the humane rights of her son in order get away and make some more profit. A mother is one that should be a role-model to her children, however Mother Courage is not. While she is going from territory to territory she believes that, “Corruption is our only hope” (Brecht 61). This is because war can change so quickly, that the only way to survive is by being corrupt as well as a dishonest person. Mother Courage thrives on others being dishonest because without them she would not be making any income whatsoever. Mother Courage displays her dishonesty throughout the play by switching her beliefs.

Mother Courage and her Children is a play that represents the hardships of the war, and what it takes to overcome them. However, Mother Courage does not tackle the challenges in a respectable manner. Although war is necessary during this time period to settle the monetary issues at hand, it does not make it morally right to profit off of another’s misfortunes. This is prevalent throughout Mother Courage’s actions. Also, war does not make it okay to not be a role-model for the children. It is not the right thing to do to sell a child’s fate just to get away and make an extra amount of money. “War is like love, it will always find a way” (Brecht 76). If war finds a way to come across Mother Courage, then you can count on her to find a way to make a profit in an inhumane way.

Works Cited

1. Brecht, Bertolt.  Mother Courage and Her Children.  Trans Eric Bentley.  New York: Grove Press, 1966.

2. "Thirty Years’ War," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007
http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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