Sibling RIvalry found in King Lear, My Sister's Keeper, and East of Eden

I first started talking about sibling rivalry found in King Lear here. Yep, that was me, blaming the entire tradegy of Shakespearce's play on the parent. 

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, which brings the theme of sibling relationships to a new level. The older sister, Kate, has leukemia. With a horrible prognosis at how bad the disease will get and that there will be very few donor matches to save her life, her parents decide to have another child solely to be a compatible organ and blood donor for her sister. Anna’s character knows that she was only born to save her sister. She goes to court for medical emancipation when Kate needs one of Anna’s kidneys. Anna has always given whatever Kate needed, but this time she wants the freedom to make her own choices. She relays that “there are always sides. There is always a winner and a loser. For every person who gets, there's someone who must give” (Picoult). 

My Sister's Keeper: A Novel by [Jodi Picoult]

The same sentiment rings true for the sibling rivalry in King Lear. There are the two older sisters, Goneril and Regan, who receive portions of the kingdom only because the favored daughter, Cordelia, who would most likely have received the entire inheritance was disinherited when she didn’t curry favor and verbally flatter her father. Goneril and Regan have grown up in a household where they knew they were not their father’s favorite. That couldn’t have helped their self-esteem. From the beginning, this poor parenting is set up when Lear declares to his daughters, “which of you shall we say doth love us most/that we our largest bounty may extend/where nature doth with merit challenge?” (1.1.50-52). He has completely set them up as rivals, which we can assume he has been doing their entire lives, which would account for their jealousies and rivalries with not only Cordelia, but then between themselves when they turn on each other for the affection of Edmund. Both My Sister’s Keeper and King Lear end with Anna and Cordelia coming to know that their parents do love them, yet tragically they both perish anyway, Anna in a twist of fate when she wins her rights to her own body, becomes brain-dead in an accident shortly afterward. Another contemporary story that plays with sibling relationships along the same vein as King Lear is East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

First Edition Cover ~ Fair Use

East of Eden plays on the rivalry represented in the Old Testament of Cain and Abel, with one son’s offerings being favored while the other son’s is rejected. Charles (Cal) and Aron are twins. Aron is good-natured and has always been favored by his father, where Cal feels that he has a darkness inside of himself and is resentful that he can never please his father. When he makes money to help their struggling family, he is again rejected because his father feels that is wasn’t honest to take advantage of the farmers. This line sums up Cal’s self-worth, “It's awful not to be loved. It's the worst thing in the world...It makes you mean, and violent, and cruel” (Steinbeck). Swap Cal’s feelings with the sentiments of Edmund who bemoans being born a bastard. “My father compounded with my mother/under the dragon’s tail and my nativity was under Ursa/Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut, I/should have been that I am” (1.2.121-124).  East of Eden also ends in tragedy when Cal shows Aron the truth about their mother being a prostitute. Aron runs off to war and is killed, which causes their father to have a stroke and die. The father’s end is very similar to the death of King Lear as Lear hovers over Cordelia’s corpse, crying, “And thou no breath at all? Oh, thou’lt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never” (5.3.315-316). Both Adam, Cal and Aron’s father, and Lear showed poor parenting skills as they, perhaps inadvertently, favored one child over the others, and in effect produced sibling rivalry that brought about terrible ends for all involved. Shakespeare was brilliant in tapping into the complexity of family relationships, creating famous rivalries between siblings that are relatable to almost everyone.  

Relationships are complicated, especially between siblings as they grow together and try to find their place within the family. Compound those relationships with parents who favor one child over the others and there is a dynamic theme to explore and bring to any audience to relate to. If a person isn’t having issues within their own families, they will see rivalry within others, whether it is with their friends, neighbors, work associates, or in the political arena as the people of the Elizabethan era were entrenched in with the succession from the Tudor line to the Stuarts. Shakespeare was able to capitalize on this because it is something that everyone with a family can relate to. While watching a play or movie, we relate to the characters. We feel the anger, loss, betrayal, hope, and love, even more deeply when it involves family members. The theme of siblings vying for attention of their parents, whether it deals with inheritance or pleasing them will endure throughout all generations. The entire play revolved around the test of love that Lear set up between his daughters in dividing his kingdom. Imagine if he had not posed that question and had split up his kingdom evenly between the three sisters. Goneril and Regan may have stayed true to their characters and squandered their inheritance, yet Lear would have been able to have a safe retirement and lived out his life in the partial kingdom with Cordelia, and the conflict between Edmund and Edgar would never have come to fruition without the interference of the two sisters supporting him. Yet there would not have been a plot worth enduring and the theme repeated throughout history.


Works Credited

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

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

Piccoult, Jodi. My Sister's Keeper. Simon & Schuster, 2004. Print