When I first heard about the Hogarth Shakespeare series where established authors retell Shakespeare’s plays in novel form, the one I was most excited to read was Margaret Atwood’s remix of “The Tempest” with her book “Hag-Seed”. Here’s one of my favourite authors giving her version of one of my favourite Shakespeare plays! As Jeanette Winterson did with “The Gap of Time” and Anne Tyler with “Vinegar Girl”, the story of Atwood’s novel takes place in a contemporary setting.
After Felix is forced to leave his job at an arts festival he's determined to take revenge on the men who orchestrated his departure, but he's also driven by the loss of his daughter Miranda. Atwood's tale even includes a production of “The Tempest” set in a men’s prison and directed Felix who is living under a pseudonym – which is highly appropriate given that Prospero is like a theatre director within the play. The novel continues making modern parallels while building to a shocking denouement. Atwood creates an ingeniously constructed story of revenge, grief and loneliness.
The novel also gives voice to prisoners from many different racial backgrounds who have their own interpretations of the play and express why it's meaningful to them. Sections of “The Tempest” are rewritten by some of the prisoners in a hip hop style like the musical 'Hamilton' using a modern sensibility and language. Many of their new lines make powerful comments about the condition of their lives “You think I'm an animal, not even a man!” or critique a corrupt, ineffective system “You earn yourself money by puttin' me in jail!” Atwood shows Shakespeare's enduring relevance and how the plays can be endlessly reinterpreted. In doing so, she also makes a meaningful statement about the importance of the arts in prisons.
The emotional core of the story is the way in which Felix mourns his daughter who died at the age of three. After he's ejected from his festival job he takes up residence in a ramshackle structure for many years and keeps Miranda's portrait by his bedside. He continues to imagine her as if she were still growing using a kind of magical thinking. Quite often their interactions aren't direct, but she always feels to him like she's just in the other room or will be back soon. The way in which Atwood describes Miranda's continuing proximity to Felix is very haunting and moving.
If the story feels very male dominated it's probably because the play is equally so, yet Atwood also includes her fascinating modern equivalent of Miranda in a low-on-her-luck dancer/actress Anne-Marie. This is a woman that Felix recruits to join in their production since none of the prisoners will agree to play a woman's part out of macho pride. Anne-Marie is a compellingly strong, intelligent and passionate individual. She gives her own interpretation of Shakespeare's character Miranda as someone definitely not passive or “draping herself over the furniture like wet spaghetti with a sign on her saying Rape Me.” Through her Atwood invokes a welcome feminist perspective to these male-dominated proceedings.
In the play, Prospero insults Caliban by calling him Hag-Seed. The prisoners take this name and re-appropriate it like the many racial invectives which have no doubt been made against them. In doing so it becomes an empowering badge of honour which they can redefine for themselves as well as staying mindful of its origin from those who wish to suppress them. Atwood's engrossing tale is very playful but comes out of a place of real anger. Like in Shakespeare's play there are political forces at play who like to shore up power. Felix and the prisoners are determined to blow this apart. In her characteristically vivid language Atwood describes how he feels “revenge is so close he can actually taste it. It tastes like steak, rare.” “Hag-Seed” is a gripping, forceful and highly imaginative way of welcoming Shakespeare into the 21st century.