King Lear ~Sibling Rivalry Rooted in Poor Parenting

When a parent favors one child over the others, jealousies evolve as children seek their place within the family unit. The theme of sibling rivalry is universal in any time period because family relationships and how we view our own identities within our families are complicated. I found this theme interesting because I come from a large family where a lot of how we dealt with each other stemmed from how our father treated us. For example, my mother didn’t make it to the hospital so my father ended up delivering my younger sister. My father and sister always had a special bond and the favoritism and considerations given her were undeniable. Rivalry between siblings is seen in William Shakespeare’s King Lear as the retiring king poses a test of love that pits his daughters against one another. In the secondary plot, Gloucester also favors one son over the other, which also drives the story into tragedy and death over the aspect of inheritance. 

By Gustav Pope (Austria 1831–1910 Londres) - Museo de Arte de Ponce, Public Domain,

And it all kind of mirrors what was happening during Shakespeare’s time. Queen Elizabeth died without an heir and rivalry between cousins over the English throne was echoed in the play. Meredith Skura states in Dragon Fathers and Unnatural Children: Warring Generations in King Lear and Its Sources that “insofar as Edgar inherits this role, he is like Shakespeare’s own new monarch, James I, prince of the newly united realm of Britain and first in a new dynastic line” (142). In King Lear, Shakespeare demonstrates through the context of the rivalry with Edmund, how Edgar rises above and casts off his old persona, as a political statement for the audience of his time and culture. William Shakespeare explores the theme of sibling rivalry brought on by parental favoritism through characterization, and use of the issues of his time and culture that makes his themes as relatable today as they were in the Elizabethan era.

Shakespeare had a talent for making characterization believable and true to what his current audience was dealing with in his society. Within a relationship between brothers and sisters, or sister to sister, brother with brother, the way siblings speak to one another, less formal, and with an intimate knowledge of growing up together, Shakespeare was able to take that kind of familiar relationship and bring it to his characters. Robert F.Willson, Jr., John R. Holmes, Joseph Rosenblum attribute this to “Shakespeare’s talent for creating the illusion of reality in mannerisms and styles of speech…Shakespeare’s keen ear for conversational rhythms and his ability to reproduce believable speech between figures of high and low social rank also contribute to the liveliness of action and characters”. Shakespeare wanted everyone in his audience, king and pauper alike, to recognize the universal themes that applied to them. Lines such as “I have been worth the whistle” (4.2.28) spoken by Goneril in King Lear or when she says to her husband, “No more. The text is foolish” (4.2.37) is the kind of thing family members say to each other when not in polite company. It’s these types of dialogue and characterization that everyone can relate to and hear in their own verbiage, albeit in our time it would sound more like “Shut up. You’re not making any sense”. 

King Lear clearly favored one daughter over the others. In Daughters of Chaos: An examination of the women in King Lear and Ran, Cathy Cupitt states that Lear’s daughters “have been living all their lives in a patriarchy, ruled over both politically and familiarly…there must be consequences to this kind of oppression, however benign”. Cupitt further conjectures that the girls most likely never had any access to political power so once they have it, they are “interested only in the exercising of their power no matter what mayhem is caused”. It is Lear himself, that sets his daughters up for failure, rivalry, and jealousies between them when he tests their love for him. He does so, anticipating that his favorite daughter, Cordelia, will flatter him, which will give him justification to give her the largest portion of the kingdom. The older daughters must have grown up knowing who was the favorite child. Goneril and Regan gave their father the flattery wanted, while Cordelia answers more reticently and is disinherited. The characterization of the sisters seems like simplistic ideals between evil and good. Goneril and Regan are evil, which is shown when they blind Gloucester, while Cordelia is the epitome of all that is good. It’s argued that “the split between the good and bad women is so extreme and simplistic it can be read as the use of archetypes rather than the development of characters” (Cupitt). Shakespeare also creates believable characters with the brothers as this same trend of rivalry between siblings continues with Edmund and Edgar caused by their father Gloucester.

The rivalry between Edmund and Edgar is just as tragic and just as impressive with remarkable degrees of characterization. Like Lear who caused the rivalry between his daughters, Gloucester is similarly guilty of favoring one son over the other.  From the first act of the play, Edmund’s resentment is shown clearly at not being a legitimate heir to his father’s lands. He gets the first soliloquy, complaining, “why ‘bastard’? Wherefore ‘base’?/When my dimensions are as well compact?” (1.2.6-7). Gloucester says he loves his sons equally, yet doesn’t recognize Edmund as an heir, clearly favoring his legitimate son, Edgar. “Explorations of Edmund’s character have focused on his exclusion from the social order” (Atherton). Because of this favoritism, Edmund puts a plan in place to gain legitimacy. “Edmund destroys his father and brother when they get in his way, turning one against the other, as he does with his lovers when he commits double adultery” (Skura 127). It is Edgar who pays the price and must flee. The Elizabethan audience would have felt sympathy for Edgar’s fallen pitiful state, anger when his father did not recognize him as a beggar, yet would also have cheered when the brothers met in combat, which proved Edgar’s innocence and Edmund is killed. “Edmund, like a playwright, is good at manipulating people—his father, his brother, his lovers. Edgar, a shake-scene himself is a brilliant improviser” (Skura 133). While Shakespeare was a master at characterization, he also took themes from the people of his day and what was important to them. The theme of rivalry to the common man as well as rivalries for the throne was a huge part of the Elizabethan culture.

Shakespeare may also have been borrowing from the reputations of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, with Mary’s short rule having the reputation of being bloody and Elizabeth being known for her goodness. Elizabeth was the queen after a short reign by her sister Mary. Due to the culture at the time, both the Tudor sisters had to overcome gender barriers about the role of women in politics. Even as queen, they were deemed unfit to rule and were urged to marry so that a man, more suitable to the task than a woman, could reign for them, very similar to Goneril and Regan, who were written as unfit for rule. According to Brenda Zetina “the Tudor queens were initially expected to be good wives and mothers who would let their men rule for them. However, both sisters took drastically different approaches to these expectations” (12). This same culture thinking is played out in King Lear where all three of Lear’s daughters are married as dutiful wives even though the two eldest of the women are given Lear’s kingdom. It is expected that they will be obedient wives with strong husbands to see to the running of the split kingdoms and because they didn’t adhere to that cultural expectation, Shakespeare cast them as the villains, who needed men to work their conspiracies for them. In fact, both women meet their end when their rivalry turns on each other over a man. By drawing on what was happening in society into his plays, Shakespeare may have influenced his culture and the way people think through his entertainment. This becomes especially apparent with the rivalry of Edmund and Edgar and what was happening with the inheritance of the throne.

One of the worst things a parent can do is make their child feel unloved or not as loveable as their sibling, yet it happens all the time, sometimes not as a conscious act. William Shakespeare’s theme of sibling rivalry brought on by parental favoritism is as relatable today as it was in the past, and when it is portrayed as well as Shakespeare wrote it with bringing in the issues of his culture and his ability to convey it through true-to-life characters, the theme will continue to be represented in new film and literature. 

Similar to King Lear, a contemporary story that plays with sibling rivalries spurred on by a parent’s favoritism is Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper and John Steinbeck's East of Eden. I touch on those similaries here



Works Cited

Atherton, Carol. “Character Analysis: The Villains in King Lear—Edmund, Goneril and Regan.” Discovering Literature: Shakespeare & Renaissance. British Library, 2017.

Bevington, David. “As You Like It: Work By Shakespeare.” Encyclopedia Britannica,

Cupitt, Cathy. “Daughters of Chaos: An Examination of the Women in King Lear and Ran.” 4 Oct 2010.

Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.” The Gutenberg Project.

            “As You Like It.” The Gutenberg Project.

“King Lear.” No Fear Shakespeare: King Lear. Spark Publishing, 2003. Print.

Skura M. “Dragon Fathers and Unnatural children: Warring Generations in King Lear and Its Sources.” Comparative Drama. 2008.

Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. Penguin Books, 2002 edition. Print

“Lady Arabella Stuart” Tudor Place.

Willson, Robert F., Jr., et al. “William Shakespeare: The Dramatist.” Salem Press Encyclopedia of Literature, 2017. EBSCOhost,

Zetina, Brenda. Mary and Elizabeth Tudor: Embracing and Manipulating Gender Expectations. No. 2, 2015. EBSCOhost,