Hag-Seed is the fourth book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series published by Hogarth Press in which popular authors pen their versions of selected Shakespearean plays. In The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson tackles The Winter’s Tale. In Shylock Is My Name, Howard Jacobson re-imagines The Merchant of Venice. Pulitzer Prize winning author Anne Tyler takes on The Taming of the Shrew in Vinegar Girl. And finally, Margaret Atwood creates a real-world The Tempest with Hag-Seed. Hogarth | October, 2016 | Kindle Edition | 324 pp
Set in Canada, the story revolves around Felix, the long-time artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. He threw himself into the newest project, his own rendition of The Tempest – something he needed to do for himself and for the daughter he recently lost. It was during this crucial period of grieving and healing when he was betrayed in a political move and ousted as director by people he trusted. The play was canceled and Felix went into hiding where he plotted his revenge.
Over time, Felix adopted a new identity and took a job teaching literacy and theater to inmates at a local prison. Teaching only three months out of the year, it was a popular program among inmates. At the end of each term, the inmates would put on a play – always Shakespeare – which would be broadcast to the rest of the inmates and guards. At the end of the fourth year, the program was in danger of shutting down. The bureaucrats in charge of funding decided to pay them a visit to view the final production before making up their minds to pull the plug, a decision which was already made a long time ago.
These bureaucrats are the very same people who betrayed Felix, and he’s expecting them. Working on The Tempest once again, Felix is about to get his revenge.
Hag-Seed is a play within a play. While Felix and his inmates are working on The Tempest as a play, the story is also recreated through the characters and the setting to illuminate two versions of The Tempest. Not only does Felix play Prospero in The Tempest, but he also plays Prospero in Hag-Seed – a man bent on revenge. While Felix was in hiding, he continuously spoke to his deceased daughter and watched her grow into a young woman. She was his Ariel, a magical, unseen force who helped in his schemes. The prison in which they worked to produce the play was the island in The Tempest. Other characters filled their parts perfectly.
When the class began, Felix’s normal custom was to have his prospective students write down the curse words from the play, any they could find. During the duration of the term, the students were only allowed to use these curse words, and points would be deducted from any inmates who used traditional curse words. This was beneficial for the reader because had this not been done, the dialogue between Felix and the inmates likely would have been inundated with f-bombs and the like. Instead, it was a hilarious jumble of nonsensical curse words from Shakespearean verse – Hag-Seed included.
There are some slow spots and I wasn’t as engaged as I expected to be. I love metafiction, Shakespeare, and Atwood – so I expected to be blown out of the water with this trifecta. Unfortunately, it failed to keep my attention. However, I did enjoy the task of comparison while trying to figure out who each character in Atwood’s Hag-Seed represented in The Tempest. Here are my conclusions which could be right or wrong. Please let me know if you have any thoughts on this.
Reasoning: Obvious, main character bent on revenge.
Reasoning: Obvious, and she falls for Ferdinand/Freddie.
Reasoning: Felix’s deceased daughter is only seen by Felix and he lets her go at the end, in the same way Prospero let Ariel go. On the other hand, 8Handz is the tech wizard who helped to orchestrate the behind-the-scenes revenge against Felix’s enemies. He was also “let go” at the end with an early parole.
Reasoning: Caliban was pardoned for his crimes by Prospero at the end, and 8Handz received an early parole. Is he Caliban or Ariel, or a combination? Or could all of the prisoners represent the disfigured Caliban? Possibly, it could be the “Hag-Seed” within Felix, the side of him that dwells in vengeance, something hinted at toward the end.
Reasoning: Both are unseen, both are deceased.
Reasoning: Sal and Lonnie both represent Alonso – Tony and Sebert conspire to bump off both men just as Ferdinand and Antonio conspire against Alonso.
Reasoning: Obvious, Freddie is the son of Sal just as Ferdinand is the son of Alonso – and there is the romance.
Reasoning: Obvious, and look at the names.
Reasoning: Obvious, and look at the names.
Reasoning: Estelle set Felix on his path to the prison/island with “books”.
Reasoning: Stephano plotted against Prospero, and Leggs did push out Felix’s monologue in favor of his own rap.