Park's Use of Foreshadowing
In her Pulitzer-Prize winning play Topdog/Underdog, Parks uses the literary device of foreshadowing in telling the story of the relationship between two brothers. The foreshadowing of Lincoln’s death by his brother Booth’s hand has many layers, from the obvious to the more personal and subtle. By the end of the play, Parks leaves the reader wondering whether Lincoln’s death was inevitable, no matter what choice either brother made.
On the broadest, most obvious level, the “joke” of the brothers’ names, Lincoln and Booth—after President Abraham Lincoln and his assassin John Wilkes Booth—foreshadows Lincoln’s death by his brother Booth at the end of the play. To reinforce the historical connection, the brothers have as their first names what the historical figures used as surnames. There would have been little dramatic impact if they had been named Abraham and John.
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States and a crucial figure in bringing an end to legalized slavery in America. The Civil War (1861–1865) began in response to his controversial election because he was so staunchly opposed to slavery in America’s new territories. The end of legalized slavery (beginning with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and culminating with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865) had a profound impact on the thousands of Africans and their American-born children who were discriminated against based solely on the color of their skin. The fact that the brothers in Topdog/Underdog are black Americans is both ironic and indicative of their difficult struggle to overcome their impoverished situation. One could also interpret their tough financial position as a way in which de facto discrimination continues to exist in the United States today. Their poverty is an additional overarching foreshadowing of an unhappy ending.
John Wilkes Booth presents an even more interesting comparison as a namesake for the character Booth in Topdog/Underdog. John Wilkes Booth was a popular professional actor but still less successful than his older brother, Edwin, who was widely considered the greatest Shakespearean actor of nineteenth-century America. John Wilkes Booth resented his brother’s greater fame. He also deeply believed in slavery and conspired with others to abduct President Lincoln. When he heard news that General Lee had surrendered at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia in April 1865, he resolved to assassinate President Lincoln and his Cabinet. Although John Wilkes Booth was successful in assassinating the president, he was captured twelve days later by soldiers and mortally shot after refusing to turn himself in.
The similarity between John Wilkes Booth and the character Booth of Topdog/Underdog is exhibited early on in the play by Booth’s emulation of Lincoln in three-card monte; Booth wants to play the same game as his brother but has never been as good. His jealousy is obvious to the observer and reader. At the end of the play, Booth lies and says that he and his on-and-off girlfriend Grace are going to get married. This declaration could be interpreted as another way for Booth to show his brother that he is the topdog since Lincoln’s marriage has failed. Booth even claims to have had sex with Lincoln’s ex-wife Cookie.
Booth attempts to leave behind his past identity as the underdog, the younger, less capable and successful brother, by renaming himself 3-Card after the shell game three-card monte. Booth sees himself making a successful career hustling people for money, as well as obliquely claiming precedence over his brother Lincoln, who used to be a very good three-card monte hustler. Lincoln goes along with the name change and eventually lets Booth practice his card hustling on him. Booth appears to be improving and even over-taking his brother in skill, but Lincoln is still more practiced than Booth at card handling. After leading Booth and the reader on for the whole play that he was losing his touch, in the last crucial card throw, Lincoln wins his brother Booth’s inheritance money. It is a classic shell game ploy. The foreshadowing of Lincoln’s win is subtle. He is talked about throughout the play as having once been the best three-card monte hustler; however he keeps losing to Booth and even appears distraught. He is so good at the game that he cannot stop himself from taking in his own blood relation.
LINCOLN: And thuh first move is to know that there aint no winning. 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...
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