Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Review by CBR Editor

Not an easy task: face down the Bard’s last great drama and make a novel out of it. Naturally, it’s got to read well to a modern audience. Some authors are still good enough to pull this off.

From stage to novel Hag-Seed is a masterful retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The characters are all here, in one form or another, but their circumstances are markedly different from the play. The author’s lead, Felix, is hardly the Prospero that Shakespeareans are familiar with. That bombastic wizard, cruel, arrogant and brilliant…master of his domain, albeit in exile, is transformed by the considerable talents of Margaret Atwood into a vain, washed-up festival theater director who keeps himself company with hallucinations of his deceased daughter and is fueled, like Prospero, with an unquenchable desire to bring vengeance upon his nemesis.  Felix is more of a puppetmaster than an actual wizard, of course, but is no less of a manipulator than Prospero. As for his nemesis, just as the Duke of Milan did to Prospero, the dissembling craven Tony dethrones Felix, shames him and expels him from the festival stage that was his only home, and takes his job to boot. Felix’s self-worth is ripped out of him as he is ostracized from the festival and drives his shambles of a car directionless into the wilderness; his exile. He secretes himself into the forests of the nearby rural landscape, lives off his dwindling savings and carefully plots his revenge over a course of years. The fact that the latter employs a cast of inmates in his prison production of The Tempest is a delicious meta-phrasing that does Atwood credit, and the book itself even more so. What is The Tempest but a story about imprisonment, and ultimate deliverance from that prison?

As the book progresses I found myself wondering what the author has done with the creature, Caliban. Since the title of her retelling –Hag-Seed– is one of the insults assigned by Prospero to that half-man, half-monster, I imagined he would strike a major role in the book, but we get little more of Caliban than the inmate who plays him in Felix’s amateur production. So we are missing the tense duel between those two; the cruelty of Prospero and the treacherous designs of Caliban. While I don’t believe it hurts the novel grievously, it strikes me as an odd choice to relegate him to a bit part.

Atwood’s Hag-Seed is the most recent title from the Hogarth Shakespeare series, retellings of some of the great playwright’s most famous works. While a popular thing for authors and publishing houses to print, in my experience Shakespeare rewrites tend to disappoint. A common flaw is that authors sometimes assume that all the work has already been done, and they can just have fun with it, manipulate a few bits and toss in a bevy of modern references. But to strip away the worlds where Shakespeare set his masterpieces is to assume that he chose them arbitrarily. Too much confidence, perhaps, in the ubiquity of human drama; believing for convenience’s sake that any drama fits any time period, any culture, any social grid, etc. What a relief it is to have the enormous talent of Margaret Atwood on display in Hag-Seed. She shrewdly perceived that she couldn’t just leave the story as-is and change the names of people and places. She understood that it would be meaningless to toss in cars and cell phones and references to the internet and ‘hey presto!’ pretend to have a modern version of Shakespeare’s last great drama. Her Felix is a different sort of man than the Bard’s proud and darkly powerful Milanese. A lonely and broken man, less heroic by far and less haughty, too. He’s not without his flaws, or without his own brand of arrogance but he’s a small man in a small universe and he knows it. This is a critical difference between these two versions of the character. Felix’s desire for retribution is no less keen, though perhaps more patient and this, as in the great play, drives the story from first to last. Among the myriad subtle ‘touches’ that Atwood adds throughout is her choice of the name Felix. From its Latin roots the name means ‘The lucky one’, or just ‘lucky.’ What sort of irony or humor is she offering us? Felix’s circumstances seem to reflect only bad luck, and even his deliverance occurs against his own design. It’s never an easy thing, after all, to experience success when it’s not what you had planned. Just look to the struggle Dumas showed us of Edmond Dantés in letting go his hate. Felix is hardly lucky, and struggles to let go at last of his hatred.

Perhaps the greatest dramatic charge in the author’s version of The Tempest is Felix’s daughter, whose hallucinatory form keeps him company and is the manifestation of his moral compass, but also a weather vane of his fluctuating sanity. Felix, like Prospero, has lost his wife but it’s the loss of his daughter Miranda (this was Atwood’s choice and deviates from Shakespeare’s Miranda) that boils beneath the furnace of Felix’s energy. Love is a powerful motivator, and a dramatic force far more potent than mere injured pride.

Atwood is no stranger to writing complex and dramatically-charged novels, often set in atmospheres of bondage. Her Handmaid’s Tale of course comes to mind, and in Hag-Seed her stage is no less binding and insular. The story dwells in Felix’s tiny hovel and the prison where he is crafting his revenge (perhaps a nod here toward Hamlet, where “the play is the thing”.) Whether she intends Felix‘s little shack to be the island of Shakespeare’s play is not entirely clear, but I took it to be the man himself who is the island, if I can be forgiven the cliché.

“As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
“Let your indulgence set me free.”

– Shakespeare

It’s the words that should concern you, he thinks at them. That’s the real danger. Words don’t show up on scanners”

– Atwood

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