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What Is Fratricide?

William Shakespeare's play Hamlet has an example of fratricide.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 06 July 2014
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Fratricide is the murder of one brother by another, although the term may also be used to describe a murder between siblings of either sex. The concept is steeped in ancient history and legend, and is often employed as a literary device to illustrate rivalry and power struggles within families. Once condoned by royalty in many parts of the world, fratricide is a form of murder and is charged as such in most legal systems.

The roots of the concept of fratricide date back the earliest stories in human memory. In Roman mythology, the plan to build Rome was created by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus. In the fight to decide where the city should be built, Remus is killed by his brother. This story is echoed in the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. According to that story, Cain kills Abel out of jealousy after God slights his offering.

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William Shakespeare made good use of the concept of fratricide when writing Hamlet, in which the story is put in motion when Claudius murders his brother to take the throne. Pervading this most famous Shakespearean tragedy is the repeated theme of the breakdown of both the human and natural world when a crime such as fratricide is committed. Like the legends from Rome and the Bible, Shakespeare focuses on the idea that jealousy and power are the corrupting forces that lead a sacred and pure relationship between brothers to become fraught with danger and death.

The world of history is filled with true stories that make the ancient legends and themes ring true. In the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire instituted a policy by which all the brothers and sometimes the sisters of a new Sultan were executed or imprisoned. Brutal as this sounds, fratricide has been a consistent and repeated theme of royal succession. Since royal families are typically large dynasties intended to provide an intact line of succession, the presence of so many siblings could be dangerous to a ruling monarch.

The Civil War in America is often portrayed in a fratricidal context. There are many stories of brothers being torn between the Confederacy and the Union, and even being forced to fight one another on the battlefield. The idea of broken brotherhood is often used as a metaphor to describe the larger break in the still-fledgling United States at the time.

Fratricide is also used to describe friendly fire deaths in military organizations. Often, these deaths occur as a result of poor communication or accident and are a tragic and disturbing event for all involved. Military fratricide can occur during training or while on active duty and is almost always considered an accidental incident instead of an actionable offense.

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