Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

The fourth in the Hogarth Shakespeare Series turned out to be the best one so far. A retelling of the oft performed and retold The Tempest, this one is laid out like an intricate puzzle and seeing the pieces come together while reading it was pure enjoyment. It is another example of the brilliance that underlies all of Margaret Atwood’s writing.

For someone who has difficulty reading Shakespeare’s plays, Hag-Seed did me the favor of decoding the many layers of The Tempest. Her main character for the modern day version, Felix Philip, is the former Artistic Director of a Canadian theatre festival, whose total immersion into creativity led to his being thrown under the bus by his assistant Tony. He stands in for Prospero, Tony for the usurping brother Antonio. After malingering in a cave-like rented house for several years, his festering obsession with revenge burning a hole in his soul, he finally changes his name and takes a position teaching the Literacy Through Literature program at a nearby prison. There he will stage his version of The Tempest, the one he never got to put on at the festival.

The prison becomes Prospero’s island for Felix. His methods for teaching Shakespeare to mid-level criminals are inspired. I enjoyed reading about that almost as much as anything else in the novel. He gets beyond the low literacy level of some of his actors and stage crew by forming them into teams that help each other “get it.” He channels their antisocial predilections and develops a method for casting the play that manages to side step the daily potential for violence. For example, he asks them to find all the swear words in the play and then allows only those to be used in class. No f-word, no s-word, just whoreson, plaguey, pied ninny, etc.

Beyond the well-rounded characters of the various prisoners, there were two more that captured me. Miranda is all over the story. One of the reasons Tony was able to outwit Felix was that the Director lost his daughter, named Miranda of course, when she died of meningitis at age three. During his self-imposed exile she reappeared as a ghostly imaginary friend and he conjured a whole life for her as the years went by. For the prison production of The Tempest, not one inmate would agree to play a girl, so Felix located the original young woman he had cast as Miranda in the aborted Festival version of the play, convincing her to brave the dangers at his current job and take the part. Anne-Marie Greenland was my favorite character: preternaturally creative but tough, full of fun, and a kick-ass dancer. Of course the prisoner who plays Ferdinand falls for her, hard. She also embodies some of the best characters from earlier Atwood novels, especially Grace Marks from Alias Grace as well as Ren and Toby from the Maddaddam trilogy.

Finally comes the revenge. Tony moved on to politics after usurping Felix and visits the prison performance with his new buddies. They intend to shut down the Literacy Through Literature program. Felix and his students manage to get these fellows into a position where he can get back at Tony and save his current job. The scenes where that revenge takes place are over the top, clever, and suspenseful, but require a large suspension of disbelief by the reader. It had to be part of the novel but I was not completely convinced by that section.

These are only the highlights of what made Margaret Atwood’s retelling so dramatic. Not a page is without surprises and treats for the reader. It is as if she is Prospero herself, rendering an entertainment for her captive audience, that being any reader who opens the book. Not only is Felix’s story a retelling of the play, The Tempest is also performed in full, making the entire production the original play within a new play.

Judy Krueger has been reviewing books since 2009. She also runs a literary blog http://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com. She is a member of at least 5 reading groups and reads 7 to 10 books a month. Every now and then, she works on the autobiography of her life as a reader or on her novel in progress. You can follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JudyJudykrueger.