Lincoln and Booth’s relationship is complex in that it’s both loving and competitive. The mere fact that Booth has opened his home to Lincoln—allowing his older brother to stay with him in the wake of Lincoln’s divorce—demonstrates the kindness he’s capable of showing. At the same time, though, Booth betrayed Lincoln by sleeping with Lincoln’s wife, Cookie—an action that ensured the dissolution of their marriage in the first place. Booth isn’t the only one with complicated feelings about his brother; Lincoln kindheartedly tries to keep Booth from entering the life of a card hustler, and yet he also cons him out of the entirety of his inheritance, plotting against his little brother and playing into his ego and lack of foresight. Given the way Lincoln and Booth treat each other, then, Parks crafts an image of brotherhood in which competition and malice are entangled with love and protection.
Lincoln and Booth both seem to be aware of the strain of competition that runs through their relationship. When Booth finally convinces Lincoln to play cards against him, he notes that if he chooses the right card, he will beat his brother “for real.” This phrasing hints at a competitive struggle that goes beyond this simple game. Indeed, it seems an acknowledgement of a competition he’s been waging against his brother in private throughout the play—now, though, this competition has come to the forefront of their relationship, making the stakes finally “real.” Recognizing the greater meaning in Booth’s assertion, Lincoln asks, “You think we’re really brothers?” In this moment, he feels Booth’s desire to undercut him and wonders if this is a natural thing for a brother to feel. Of course, the reason he’s so acutely aware of this twisted sense of competition is that he himself is also trying to undermine Booth. Thus, faced not only with Booth’s malice for him, but also with his own malice for Booth, Lincoln pauses to recognize the toxic nature of their relationship. After a moment, he throws the cards. The fact that he stops to ponder his relationship with Booth and then proceeds to cheat him out of his inheritance suggests that he considers competition an unavoidable (or at least excusable) aspect of brotherhood.
Although Lincoln betrays his brother by conning him out of his inheritance, his actions are perhaps not purely malicious. Throughout the play, he has been trying to convince Booth not to enter the conman’s line of business. Lincoln himself is trying to quit card-throwing, and when Booth wants to go into the card-throwing business, Lincoln warns him, saying, “Throwing thuh cards aint as easy as it looks.” In this way, he discourages his brother from stepping into a world of crime, having has witnessed firsthand the dangers of such a lifestyle. Though it may seem at the end of the play like Lincoln abandons this protective attitude when he cheats Booth out of his inheritance, part of why he does so may be to further deter his brother from the life of a conman. This notion is supported by the fact that, upon winning Booth’s money, Lincoln emphasizes how clumsy and unfit for playing cards his brother is, saying, “Aint yr fault if yr eyes aint fast. And you cant help it if you got 2 left hands, right? Throwing cards aint thuh whole world. You got other shit going for you. You got Grace.” In this moment, Lincoln stresses Booth’s lack of talent as well as the fact that there are other things in his life that are worthier of his attention. “You got Grace,” he reminds his brother, trying to lure him away from a life of crime and toward a more wholesome existence. In other words, Lincoln’s sense of competition with Booth manifests itself in a protectiveness of sorts, ultimately denoting that there’s room for love and care even in the most troubled and competitive of familial relationships.
The attitude of competition Booth displays toward Lincoln is even more complicated than the odd but arguably well-intentioned sense of competition Lincoln feels toward Booth. This is overwhelmingly apparent in the moments directly before and directly after Booth kills Lincoln. Gun in hand, Booth shouts at his brother just before shooting him, saying, “Who thuh man now, huh? Who thuh man now!? Think you can fuck with me, motherfucker think again motherfucker think again!” This is a blatantly competitive thing to say, especially when Booth yells, “Who thuh man now, huh?” His use of the word “now” reveals that he has heretofore seen Lincoln as the “man” (or the “topdog”) and that he thinks he has suddenly usurped his brother of this dominant role. However, after he kills Lincoln, he hardly feels triumphant or victorious—indeed, it doesn’t take long before he falls to the ground and screams in agony over having lost his brother. The play ends on this somber note, displaying the fraught mixture of competition and love that makes Lincoln and Booth’s relationship as brothers so complicated.
Brotherhood and Competition ThemeTracker
Brotherhood and Competition Quotes in Topdog/Underdog
She was putting her stuff in bags. She had all them nice suitcases but she was putting her stuff in bags.
Packing up her shit. She told me to look out for you. I told her I was the little brother and the big brother should look out after the little brother. She just said it again. That I should look out for you. Yeah. So who gonna look out for me. Not like you care. Here I am interested in an economic opportunity, willing to work hard, willing to take risks and all you can say you shiteating motherfucking pathetic limpdick uncle tom, all you can tell me is how you dont do more what I be wanting to do. Here I am trying to earn a living and you standing in my way. YOU STANDING IN MY WAY, LINK!
Im hot. I need constant sexual release. If I wasnt taking care of myself by myself I would be out there running around on thuh town which costs cash that I dont have so I would be doing worse: I’d be out there doing who knows what, shooting people and shit. Out of a need for unresolved sexual release. I’m a hot man. I aint apologizing for it. When I dont got a woman, I gotta make do. Not like you, Link. When you dont got a woman you just sit there. Letting yr shit fester. Yr dick, if it aint falled off yet, is hanging there between yr legs, little whiteface shriveled-up blank-shooting grub worm. As goes thuh man so goes thuh mans dick. Thats what I say. Least my shits intact.
You a limp dick jealous whiteface motherfucker whose wife dumped him cause he couldnt get it up and she told me so. Came crawling to me cause she needed a man.
I gave it to Grace good tonight. So goodnight.
All she knew was you couldnt get it up. You couldnt get it up with her so in her head you was tired of her and had gone out to screw somebody new and this time maybe werent never coming back.
She had me pour her a drink or 2. I didnt want to. She wanted to get back at you by having some fun of her own and when I told her to go out and have it, she said she wanted to have her fun right here. With me.
And then, just like that, she changed her mind.
But she’d hooked me. That bad part of me that I fight down everyday. You beat yrs down and it stays there dead but mine keeps coming up for another round. And the bad part of me took her clothing off and carried her into thuh bed and had her, Link, yr Cookie. It wasnt just thuh bad part of me it was all of me, man, I had her. Yr damn wife. Right in that bed.
And ooooh you certainly was persistent. But you was in such a hurry to learn thuh last move that you didnt bother to learning thuh first one. That was yr mistake. Cause its thuh first move that separates thuh Player from thuh Played. And thuh first move is to know that there aint no winning. Taadaaa! It may look like you got a chance but the only time you pick right is when thuh man lets you. And when its thuh real deal, when its thuh real fucking deal, bro, and thuh moneys on thuh line, thats when thuh man wont want you picking right. He will want you picking wrong so he will make you pick wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Ooooh, you thought you was finally happening, didnt you? You thought yr ship had come in or some shit, huh? Thought you was uh Player. But I played you, bro.