In the Vintage Hogarth Series, contemporary authors put their individual novelistic spin on a Shakespeare play. So far the series has seen the release of Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name (The Merchant of Venice), Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew), and now Margaret Atwood’s Hag-seed (2016), which for most of its 300+ pages is a wonderfully charming, witty, and at times moving update of The Tempest, set not on a mysterious island but instead in a medium-security prison in Canada.
Early in Hag-Seed we see Felix Phillips (Prospero) unexpectedly ousted from his long-standing position as Creative Director of the Makeshiweg Festival in a theater “coup” led by his rival Tony Price (aka Antonio). Felix goes into self-imposed “exile” in a run-down rural cottage where he stews in a bitter soup of resentment and plays chess with the spirit of his daughter Miranda (as in, well, Miranda), dead of meningitis at age three. Realizing he’s on the edge of going full-tilt crazy (it’s unclear whether Miranda is real or imagined), he finds purpose via a job directing plays at a local prison under the alias Mr. Duke. He continues to harbor fantasies of vengeance, but is mostly just spinning his wheels until fate intervenes in the form of an official visit to the prison by his usurpers. Here, at last, is his chance, and with the help of his cast of prisoners, he plans on performing a particularly appropriate The Tempest, the likes of which an audience has never seen.
Hag-Seed has Atwood’s trademark sharply honed wit (if it isn’t trademarked it should be), beginning with her portrayal of Felix who yes, has been wronged, but like his analog Prospero, is hardly innocent in his own downfall, as shown by a quick rundown of some of his “edgy” creative decisions, such as:
Pericles staged with spaceships and extraterrestrials … and the moon goddess Artemis with the head of a praying mantis … [or] Hermione’s return to life as a vampire in The Winter’s Tale.
Felix is a prickly, sometimes arrogant, sometimes oblivious, always fun character who is given an added layer of depth through his deep, deep grief over the loss of his daughter. The scenes where he interacts with or muses on the reality of her spirit are some of the strongest moments in Hag-Seed, and certainly are the most powerfully emotional. Other characters are nowhere near as fully developed; some read like caricatures, and others are simply mostly forgettable save for a few taglines/attitudes, but Felix himself is so compelling this lack doesn’t have that strong an impact until perhaps the ending. The fact that each stands as a double for a Tempest character (and sometimes a double-double — playing more than one) also lessens the impact of their relatively shallow characterization.
Woven into the plot is a surprising amount of incisive reading of The Tempest (surprising in its quantity, not its acuity), peeling apart the many layers of Shakespeare’s work, sometimes subtly, sometimes directly as Felix teaches the play to his cast or as the various cast members try to understand their characters’ thinking/motivations. For instance, in one of the more appropriate lessons, he has his cast try to find the various ways in which various characters are imprisoned, exploring the theme of freedom/imprisonment that runs throughout the play via multiple characters. Felix’s complex nature, including his uglier parts, are a perfect mirror for Shakespeare’s portrayal of Prospero, as is the relationship between Prospero and Caliban that comes into play more strongly at the end of Hag-Seed. Atwood also makes great use of Shakespeare’s language throughout the play, employing many a phrase or line that will ring familiar. None so fun as Shakespeare’s swear words, which make regular appearance thanks to Felix telling the inmates they are not allowed to swear during preparation or rehearsals unless they use Shakespeare’s curses. There’s also a lot of fun updating of the language, with several rap versions of speeches/songs.
As strong as the first three-quarters of Hag-Seed are, ironically the book goes a bit off the rails quality-wise when the actual performance of the play occurs. This is often a problem in these retellings with modern readers (at least this one) less forgiving of the implausibilities, coincidences, etc. of Shakespeare’s time. But this is a relatively brief segment and clunky as it is, as hard to believe as much of it is, the performance comes and goes pretty quickly and then it’s back into the flow, with some more great “criticism” of the play coming via the inmates presenting their final reports on what they believe happens to their characters.
I haven’t read all the Hogarth series, just Anne Tyler’s, which was much more hemmed in by the outdated sexist nature of Taming of the Shrew. Atwood, however, is freed by the greatness of The Tempest — its multiple complexities and shadings, its magic, and of course its language. Adding in the poignancy of Felix’s grief over his young daughter’s death is a brilliant touch, making Hag-Seed an excellent example of how good this series can be.