Mother Courage, the play's antiheroic protagonist, represents the capitalist machine of war. At the opening of the play, Mother Courage seeks to protect her children from the violence of war, but it becomes clear, again and again, that she actually values making money as much as, or perhaps more than, she values her children's lives. She is haggling over prices when an army recruiter takes Eilif away, buying supplies when both he and Kattrin are executed, and is too much of a businesswoman to pay the full ransom for Swiss Cheese's life. Although she knows her children's lives are in danger because of the war, Mother Courage hopes it continues long enough for her to make her fortune—which she doesn't and won't. At the end of the play, with her children dead, Mother Courage continues with business as usual. The war and her children's deaths do not change her life or her way of thinking, but they do validate the cynicism about people and the virtues in human nature she has expressed throughout the play. As a representative of capitalist war profiteering, Mother Courage's main focus is, obviously, on making money. Lives, principles, and human emotions are far less important and do not interfere with her unwavering commitment to profit.
Kattrin represents resilience to wartime violence. Although she spends most of the play as a silent victim of war, she finds a voice of sorts at the end of the play and is the only character that shows real courage. Mother Courage suggests that Kattrin was gagged and raped and lost her voice because of the trauma. Kattrin loves children and wants only to marry and have her own family. However, her prospects of marriage are dim because of her inability to speak, a scar she finds disfiguring, and diminishing numbers of eligible men. Indeed, Kattrin's life seems to be one huge casualty of war. Yet she doesn't give in or try to turn it around for her benefit as her mother does. On the contrary, she risks her life—and loses it—by climbing on a roof and beating a drum to call the sentry's attention to the invading troops. Refusing to stop, she is shot dead. Yet despite her sacrifice, the war goes on, and her mother continues her business. However, a village of children is saved—for the present.
The chaplain represents for Bertolt Brecht the worthlessness of religion and religious hypocrisy, particularly during war. At the opening of the play, the chaplain arrives as a spiritual leader to soldiers in battle. As soon as the situation becomes precarious for him, however, the chaplain abandons his religion and dresses as a Catholic priest to avoid execution. He remains in priest's clothing until the Protestant army once again gains control. During peacetime, the chaplain assumes he will be able to return to his church, despite having abandoned his faith and those who needed him during difficult times. Obviously he lacks real faith.
The cook provides some comic relief in an otherwise disturbing political satire. An aging would-be lover, the cook, referred to as "Mr. Lamb," has considerable charm, having seduced many women, including Yvette who sings of him as the love of her life who abandoned her when she was 16. He partners with Mother Courage after losing his job during the Catholic incursion. When he inherits a small inn, he offers Mother Courage a quiet life running it with him, but he will not have Kattrin accompany them. The cook sees things for what they are, often calling out the chaplain for his hypocrisy and agreeing with Mother Courage the war is nothing more than a racket. Like her, the cook hopes to take what he can from it for as long as it lasts.
Eilif represents both the virtues of good soldiers and the chaplain's belief war brings out the worst in everyone. Eilif makes a name for himself by killing villagers and stealing their livestock to feed his starving regiment. Mother Courage cynically notes his commanders wouldn't need brave soldiers to commit courageous acts if they stopped putting the men and boys in danger or knew how to manage their regiments. When Eilif performs a similar act during peacetime, he is executed. Eilif's punishment asks audiences to question why a violent act can be considered courageous in one circumstance and criminal in the next, another of war's absurdities.
Swiss Cheese is Mother Courage's youngest son. During the war, he becomes paymaster for the Finnish regiment and takes his role seriously. He tries to return the regiment's cash box to his commanding officer but is discovered by enemy forces and executed. Mother Courage has the opportunity to buy Swiss Cheese's freedom from the executioner, but she takes too long deliberating, questioning whether she would rather spend her money saving her son or saving her cart. Mother Courage's haggling over the price of Swiss Cheese's life, the same way she haggles over the price of the armorer's ammunition at the opening of the scene, highlights her value of money over humanity.