Review | Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

I absolutely love Shakespeare. From my first visit to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon I have loved the plays: the beautiful complexity within them, the diversity of character and the cleverness of complete storytelling. Whether you believe he wrote them all or not, the fact remains that Shakespeare crafted some of the greatest tales in the history of the English language – and now, our modern literary heroes have been taking them on.

My first review of the Hogarth series is the latest release. I have read others, and will post my reviews on them at some point, but I wanted to start with this one as one of Shakespeare’s most complex plays being retold by an author who never shies from complicated things.

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In Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood has made Prospero manifest in Felix, a theatre director in Canada, who has been spurned by the board and ousted by his assistant just as he is to launch into the most elaborate production of The Tempest ever produced. Deciding to take the role of Prospero to heart, he spends years tracking his enemies – now cabinet ministers – to prepare for his revenge against them. All this he does whilst holding onto the spirit of his daughter, Miranda, who died of Meningitis.

When an opportunity arises to help with a literacy program at the local prison, Felix decides to take it. If nothing else, it’ll distract him from his loneliness and grief. But after three years in the program, it seems his enemies are to come to him, and now is his chance to seek revenge and finally produce his Tempest.

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Beautiful end papers from the hardback edition

What struck me most about Hag-Seed was Atwood’s use of the material without shying away from its source. Unlike other retellings, which have made no direct connection to the original material, this book explains the play and how it is to be staged, whilst the actors are caught within their own version of it. The book is, in essence, one of Shakespeare’s favourite devices: a play within a play.

And that sums up the whole intricacy and beauty of the book. Atwood takes the material and uses it just as Shakespeare would’ve done if he were a contemporary novelist. She even, brilliantly, includes throwaway names and passages that connect to other plays (my personal favourite being the bar, Horatio’s), which will delight any Shakespeare fan. The whole piece is an homage to the bard, and really shines with Atwood’s love of the subject she’s been given.

Stepping away from the source material, the story itself is one filled with the complex moral questions that Atwood relishes. At no point does Felix question his actions, the obsessions that cloud his judgment, to the point where even a prison inmate isn’t sure that what’s happening is ‘right’. Yet he remains a sympathetic character, and the beauty of his relationship with his daughter and with Anne-Marie who must play his daughter is done with great care and a lightness of touch that could otherwise have seemed trite and sentimental.

The book really focuses on Felix, with the supporting characters there as a way to flesh out his experience, rather than having their story to tell. It doesn’t matter in this whether the inmates are guilty or not, what happened in Anne-Marie’s past before coming to the play, or what else motivates Tony and Sal to be the greedy politicians they are. And this, in some way, goes to explain why although I found this book good it still fell a bit short for me. Because, no matter how much you try to separate the prose from the play, Atwood has made it impossible to do so and the translation becomes almost word for word, with characters doing things for the sake of fitting to the original story, rather than having a divergent or deeper development for the novel.

Prospero is one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, and I know why Atwood wanted to delve into her version, into Felix, so fully. But the trick to The Tempest is that the play isn’t all about Prospero, and a huge amount of action takes place without him on stage – we are shown complexities such as the morality and motivations of Caliban that, given the prison setting in Hag-Seed, could have been delved into with the consideration I know Atwood can pull off. But it wasn’t. Felix, in every sense of the word, becomes centre stage, and anything else is a prop.

Was this Atwood’s intention, then? To focus Prospero’s obsession so deeply? Perhaps, and if it is, it is a clever way to do it, but I still felt that the lack of support from the additional characters didn’t give the whole novel the depth I think it deserved.

That being said, the finale of the novel, as the play has closed and the inmates review their work, was an interesting take that allows the characters to wonder what would happen to those in The Tempest after the play has finished. The epilogue, too, was a wonderfully poignant moment that, after all the cleverness, is touching and beautiful.

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Have you had a chance to read it yet? Are there any of the other Hogarth Shakespeare’s you’ve been able to pick up? Let me know and let’s chat in the comments!

 

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