Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

One of the joys of reading the Hogarth Shakespeare series is seeing how different authors respond to the original plays. Some retell the stories in a modern context (The Gap of Time and Vinegar Girl) or respond to the problems of the play (Shylock is My Name). In Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood takes on The Tempest and achieves a remarkably multi-layered approach to a play that is, to put it mildly, a little batshit. In this version of the tale, a theater director whose life mirrors Prospero’s decides to use a staging of the play inside a prison to get revenge on the people who displaced him. Of course, this bare summary does no justice to Atwood’s writerly skill.

After a brief glimpse the climactic staging of The Tempest, we see how our protagonist was abruptly kicked out of his job as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival. Felix Phillips, at that point, had just lost his daughter to meningitis (three years after he lost his wife in childbirth) and his planned production of The Tempest was going off the rails. Felix’s Shakespeare productions were always over the top, but there are worries that this one will be beyond demented. While he was putting all this energy into the play, his assistant Tony is plotting to replace him. Tony completely blindsides Felix when he gives the director the news that he’s out of the festival and that his production is canceled.

Felix heads off into rural Canada to lick his wounds and plot desultory revenge. Over time, realizing that he’s doing nothing by turning himself into an eccentric hermit, he wrangles a job as a theater director for Fletcher Correctional Institute. Considering that he is teaching Shakespeare to inmates, Felix is shockingly successful. He is so successful in fact that Tony, now a government minister, and his cronies make plans to see the latest production. It’s the opportunity Felix has been waiting for.

It was tempting to try and map The Tempest onto Hag-Seed. One can, but there are enough differences to give this version an important degree of originality. And, though we know that Felix is going to use the prisoner’s production to somehow get revenge, the details are hidden from us and we don’t know if he’ll succeed or not. There’s also the added complication that Felix may not be entirely compos mentis after his years in his remote cabin, ruminating on his revenge.

Until the narrative brought us up to the climax, I was strongly reminded of the Canadian series Slings & Arrows. Both the show and Hag-Seed contain an unpredictable artistic director with a deep love of Shakespeare and scenes in which that director strives to help the actors make sense of the bewildering words and motivations of Shakespeare’s characters. Hag-Seed, however, is not a comedy. It has a darkness that I didn’t pick up on when reading The Tempest as an undergraduate. The scenes in which Felix helps the inmates understand The Tempest helped illuminate that play brilliantly and revealed the irony between Felix’s quest for revenge through a play about a man seeking revenge only to forgive his former enemies.

Along with Vinegar Girl, I think Hag-Seed is one of my favorites from the Hogarth series so far. I’m very excited to see how the other authors tackle their chosen targets.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 October 2016.


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