Shakespeare on sibling rivalry | Inquirer Business

Shakespeare on sibling rivalry

In Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” the old king is exhausted and wants to retire.  He asks his three daughters which one of them loves him the most.  He then divides the kingdom among the two eldest, Goneril and Regan, who tell him what he wants to hear.

Though he secretly favors Cordelia, the youngest, she refuses to flatter him. King Lear disinherits her, setting in motion the horrendous consequences that follow such a rash decision.

It turns out that Cordelia is the only daughter who truly loves him.


Only the Fool, the king’s adviser, sees through the other sisters’ machinations, warning King Lear of the folly of giving the kingdom to those who do not deserve it.


The empire is like an egg, says the Fool, and cutting an egg in half and giving both parts away without thought is foolish, like one carrying a donkey on his back instead of the donkey carrying him.

“Why, after I have cut the egg i’ th’ middle and eat up the meat / the two crowns of the egg / When thou clovest thy crown i’ th’ middle and gav’st away both parts / thou bor’st thine ass on thy back o’er the dirt. … I am better than thou art now / I am a fool, thou art nothing.”

Siblings with unresolved issues cannot manage the family business equitably, especially if they know the parents favor one over the rest. Parents need to treat everyone with care.

Treat children fairly

Sibling issues can be toxic, especially if more than one family, whether legitimate or not, are involved.  Founders need to make clear how things are going to be managed for the benefit of different family groups, since long-simmering emotions can turn deadly for all.

Sibling rivalry exists not just among King Lear’s daughters, but also between the Earl of Gloucester’s two sons, the legitimate Edward and his illegitimate half-brother, Edmund.


Primogeniture was the law in England in Shakespeare’s time, where eldest sons inherit everything—the father’s power, lands, titles, etc.

Primogeniture is also practiced today, when the eldest son—by virtue of his gender and birth order—is automatically granted the biggest share of the business, whether or not he deserves it.

Those cast aside naturally harbor resentment.  Edmund bemoans how society treats him, a bastard, even if objectively, he is as worthy of respect as his legitimate brother. So Edmund resolves to go after Edward’s land, with disastrous results for all.

If children, whether legitimate or otherwise, are not treated fairly, they can catapult the family business into turmoil.

Professionalize finances

Family members often treat the business as their personal cash-cow, charging personal expenses such as tuition and leisure expenses to the company. Others take out pseudo-loans that they can never repay, leading to family conflict.

Lending can strain the best of friendships, while borrowing makes people live beyond their means.  In “Hamlet,” the father Polonius tells his son:

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be / For loan oft loses both itself and friend / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry / This above all: to thine ownself be true / And it must follow, as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Responsible family businesses are conscious of leverage.  Founders are traditionally extremely thrifty, and never borrow beyond what they need to survive.

(Next week:  Shakespeare on passion and grit)

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Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center.  Get her book “All in the Family Business” at or call National’s Jennie Garcia at 0915-421-2276.  Contact the author at [email protected].

TAGS: Shakespeare, sibling rivalry

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