​Shakespeare’s Macbeth, 'peerless' Kinsman

By Laura A. Brueckner, Ph.D.

"True, worthy Banquo; he is full so valiant,
And in his commendations I am fed;
It is a banquet to me. Let's after him,
Whose care is gone before to bid us welcome:
It is a peerless kinsman." - King Duncan, Macbeth, Act I, s. 4

King Duncan’s speech above describes Macbeth as he appears early in the play that bears his name: a successful general, whose prowess has won him wealth and the public admiration of his prince and peers.When Duncan thanks him, Macbeth replies modestly that his service and loyalty is simply what he owes the king, as children owe obedience and love to a parent. However, audiences know that this is empty show; behind Macbeth’s eyes, the prophecy of the self-proclaimed “weird sisters” has already begun to infect his reason with the virulent ambition that will warp his relationships with other people beyond repair—including his bond with Lady M, who embraces the same passionate self-seeking but ultimately loses herself to madness. Generous, trusting King Duncan is only the first to fall victim to the pair’s febrile hunger for power, which swiftly spirals out of control.

Peerless is not a direct adaptation of the Scottish play, but deftly activates its characters and themes to put a comic twist on, among other things, the spiraling cost of success in today’s America, especially for children of immigrant families. Asian-American identical twins M and L take the place of Shakespeare’s murderous married couple; the throne they seek is admission to The College, a notoriously exclusive Ivy League fantasy institution that takes one “early decision” student—and only one—from their high school every year. To ensure that they both will be chosen, M and L move to the Midwest to appeal to admissions offices’ notions of “geographical diversity,” register in different years to avoid competing against one another, and pursue academic excellence (and a superhuman schedule of outlandishly perfect extracurriculars) with the grim determination of generals taking a castle. With their goals, recs, stats, softs, outfits, smiles, and identities perfectly coordinated, their shot at the American Dream feels assured. Of course, when this shot is threatened, things swiftly spiral out of control.

Jiehae Park’s play mines Macbeth in other ways as well. Her clever take on Shakespeare’s witches comes in the form of a hygienically challenged, mostly incoherent attitude case called Dirty Girl, who gives M some uncanny advice—maybe, or maybe she’s just crazy—convincing the twins they must act to save their future. King Duncan becomes D, a gentle, slightly schlubby guy with a crush on M; Banquo and Fleance appear distilled into the character of the Boyfriend, the only other student of color at the twins’ white suburban school. In peerless, these characters build on their Shakespearean foundations to address today's anxieties; they may be “but young indeed”, but their challenges echo the crises of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. As the script says, “This play is a comedy.” ”Until it’s not.”