2 Brothers

by:  Sarah Schnebly at 03/31/2017

Notoriously circumspect playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is often pressed to explain the significance of Topdog/Underdog. Her response? “It’s just two brothers in a room… they’re just two people who came from the same two pieces of flesh.” Deceptively glib, this answer emphasizes one of the most dramatic relationships found in storytelling. Here are a few famous stories that are about “just two brothers.” 

Anpu & Bata
Said to be the oldest fairytale in the world, The Tale of the Two Brothers was found on an ancient Egyptian papyrus scroll and tells of older brother Anpu and his younger brother Bata, who lived with him like a son. One day, when Anpu was still out in the fields, Anpu’s wife decided to seduce Bata. When he denied her, Anpu’s wife found her husband and claimed that Bata had both seduced and assaulted her. Enraged, Anpu tried to kill Bata who fled, praying to the god Ra-Harakhti for protection. Hearing the prayer, Ra-Harakhti conjured a lake of crocodiles between the two brothers so that Bata could explain himself without Anpu reaching him. As a gesture of sincerity, Bata castrated himself and asked Anpu to come resurrect him when the time was right. Anpu returned home to kill his lying wife, while Bata settled in the Valley of Cedar before being killed. Anpu received the sign to look for his brother’s heart and resurrected him in an act of reconciliation.

Jacob & Esau
The conflict between these twins is said to have begun in the womb. Growing up, Esau was the favorite of his father Isaac, while Jacob had a special place in his mother Rebekah’s heart. After a long day in the field, Esau returned home and asked for some of the food Jacob had made. Jacob asked for Esau’s birthright, his inheritance as eldest son, in return for the food and Esau, famished, agreed. When Isaac lay on his deathbed and wished to give Esau his blessing, Rebekah told Jacob to pretend to be Esau and trick Isaac into giving him the blessing instead. When Esau discovered that Jacob had taken both his birthright and his blessing, he resolved to kill his brother – causing Jacob to flee. Years later the brothers met again and were able to reconcile their differences.


Romulus & Remus
These twins are perhaps most famous for founding the city of Rome, though the story of them suckling from a she-wolf has also gained legendary status. As children, Romulus and Remus were left to die by the River Tiber because they posed a threat to the king. The brothers grew up as shepherds and were one day confronted by two of the king’s shepherds which resulted in Remus’s capture.  The rescue mission Romulus designed to save his brother resulted in the death of the sitting king. Both refused to replace the king in favor of starting their own city, but the two brothers could not agree on a location. Romulus began to build a wall in his chosen location, but was ruthlessly mocked by Remus for his efforts. Angered by his humiliation, Romulus murdered his brother. In a show of apparent contrition, Romulus honored Remus to the highest degree at his funeral.

Heungbu & Nolbu
This Korean folktale tells of the older brother Nolbu and his younger brother Heungbu. Though their father wished to split his fortune equally between his two sons, Nolbu took all of the money upon their father’s death, leaving Heungbu with nothing. Out walking one day, Heungbu came across a sparrow with a broken leg and rescued him from an approaching snake. After Heungbu had tended to the sparrow’s leg, the sparrow gave Heungbu a seed as a token of his gratitude. The seeds grew into large gourds that, when Heungbu opened them, contained precious gemstones. When Nolbu heard of his brother’s newfound wealth he demanded Heungbu tell him the source of his success. Eager to stay wealthier than his brother, Nolbu went out into the woods and, when he could not find a wounded sparrow, he broke a healthy sparrow’s leg instead. After nursing the bird back to health, Nolbu was presented with a seed which grew into large gourds. Instead of gemstones, the gourds were full of goblins that wreaked havoc on Nolbu’s family and property. Desperate Nolbu ran to Heungbu and asked for his forgiveness. Heungbu accepted and offered his brother shelter.

Edgar & Edmund
Found in Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar and Edmund were half-brothers – Edmund the eldest but born out of wedlock and Edgar the younger, legitimate son. Resentful of Edgar’s legal claim to all of their father’s fortune, Edmund constructed a plot to have him killed. Edmund falsely accused Edgar of patricidal thoughts, then advised Edgar to flee without speaking to their father. On the run, Edgar disguised himself as a madman while Edmund went to court to gain power through manipulation. In the chaos of a kingdom at war with itself, Edgar reappeared at court in full armor, accused Edmund of being a traitor and challenged him to a duel. Only after winning the duel did Edgar reveal his true identity. Before his death, Edmund repented his crimes and tried to save the life of a woman he had condemned to death.

Photo Credits:

  1. Sheet from the Tale of Two Brothers, Papyrus D'Orbine Sheet from the Tale of Two Brothers, Papyrus D'Orbiney. From Egypt. End of the 19th Dynasty
  2. Jacob and Esau
  3. Romulus and Remus
  4. 'Heungbu and Nolbu' stamps from
  5. Edgar and Edmund from King LearCassell's illustrated Shakespeare. illustr. by H.C. Selous 1864.

  • Tags:


Post a Comment


Avenue of the Arts / Huntington Avenue Theatre: 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston MA 02115
South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA: 527 Tremont Street, Boston MA 02116
Main: 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston MA 02115 | 617 266 7900 | BOX OFFICE 617 266 0800

© 2018 Huntington Theatre Company. All rights reserved | Trouble viewing this site? Please download Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome.