Sibling Rivalry

According to child psychologist Sylvia Rimm, sibling rivalry is particularly intense when children are very close in age and of the same gender, or where one child is intellectually gifted.  Sigmund Freud saw the sibling relationship as an extension of the Oedipus complex, where brothers were in competition for their mother's attention and sisters for their father.

Sibling rivalry is not unique to Western culture. For example, there is an Arabic saying: "I against my brother; my brother and I against my cousin; I, my brother, and my cousin against the stranger". 

We have created a lightbox of images displaying instances of sibling rivalry and fratricide from the bible, history and literature and here are some examples below.

The killing of Abel, detail from the Grabower Altarpiece, 1379-83 (tempera on panel), Master Bertram of Minden (c.1345-c.1415) / Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany
The killing of Abel, detail from the Grabower Altarpiece, 1379-83 (tempera on panel), Master Bertram of Minden (c.1345-c.1415) / Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany

Jacob and Esau, 1878 (oil on canvas), George Frederick Watts (1817-1904) / © Trustees of the Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey, UK
Jacob and Esau, 1878 (oil on canvas), George Frederick Watts (1817-1904) / © Trustees of the Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey, UK

The Bible

Cain and Abel. The story of Cain and Abel is one fraught with jealousy and violence. Envious of his brother’s favour with the Lord, Cain becomes furious. Despite God’s warning that ‘sin is crouching at the door’ (Genesis 4:7), Cain lures his brother to a field and kills him.

Jacob and Esau. Not only did Jacob trick his brother Esau into selling him his birthright for a bowl of lentils, he also deceived their dying father Isaac into bestowing upon him, the younger son, the blessing of the firstborn. Jacob had to suffer in exile before he was forgiven by Esau. Watts’s painting imagines their dramatic reunion.

Joseph and his brothers. In the Hebrew Bible, Joseph was stripped of his coat of many colours, thrown into a pit and then sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Unbeknownst to them, Joseph went on to prosper, becoming a favourite of the Pharaoh and eventually getting his revenge on his siblings by accusing them of espionage and sending them away during a time of famine.

Joseph Thrown in a Well by his Brothers, 1356-67 (fresco), Bartolo di Fredi, also Manfredi de Battilori (1330-1410) / Collegiata, San Gimignano, Italy / Alinari
Joseph Thrown in a Well by his Brothers, 1356-67 (fresco), Bartolo di Fredi, also Manfredi de Battilori (1330-1410) / Collegiata, San Gimignano, Italy / Alinari

Cinderella, Nadir Quinto (1918-94) / Private Collection / © Look and Learn /
Cinderella, Nadir Quinto (1918-94) / Private Collection / © Look and Learn /

Literature

Cinderella. Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters were so jealous of her natural beauty and grace that they forced her into servitude.

Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The villainous Don John, malcontent brother of Don Pedro, causes mischief when he plots to ruin the wedding day of Hero and Claudio by defaming Hero’s character.

Shakespeare's King Lear. Goneril and Regan are in conflict over their father’s land, and later in the play their rivalry becomes more intense as they fight for the love of the same man.

Shakespeare's HamletThe king is killed by his brother Claudius in order to gain control over Denmark. In the play the ghost of the old king appears to Hamlet, his son, to tell him of the betrayal.

History & Myth

Romulus and Remus. Rome's twin founders in its traditional foundation myth. These brothers of noble birth were cast out to be raised by wolves and went on to found the city of Rome. During a disagreement over where to build the new city, Remus was killed. Romulus’ punishment? To invent the festival of Lemuria to appease Remus’ resentful ghost.

Cleopatra. It is believed that Cleopatra had her husband Mark Antony murder her sister Princess Arsinoe. There was also intense sibling rivalry between Cleopatra and her brothers Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV.

King Richard I and John. Richard I was captured by the French while away on the Third Crusade. John then refused to pay the ransom for Richard’s release so that he could continue to rule England in his brother’s stead.

 

Richard pardons his brother John by James E Doyle (19th Century) © Look and Learn
Richard pardons his brother John by James E Doyle (19th Century) © Look and Learn


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