Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood

Although I’m a fan of Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and Anne Tyler, I have, until now, avoided the Hogarth Shakespeare retellings. The reason? *Whispers* I can’t really see the point. Maybe it’s fatigue from my secondary school teacher days when I watched and read numerous versions of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Regardless, Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest made its way onto the Baileys Prize longlist and as I commit to reading them all, here we are.

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While Hag-Seed is a re-telling, it also incorporates a production of the play itself. So far, so meta. Atwood riffs on the theme of prisons, placing most of the action within a prison and ensuring that several of the characters are contained within prisons of their own making. One of these comes about through a play that happens within the performance of The Tempest, so a play within a play within a retelling of a play. I can’t help thinking that William himself would be impressed with that bit of theatrical intricacy.

The action of the novel, however, begins outside of prison but inside the world of theatre. Felix is the Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival. He surrounds himself with the best and allows one of his workers, Tony, to take the mundane tasks, while he concerns himself with ‘higher aims’.

To create the lushest, most beautiful, the most awe-inspiring, the most inventive, the most numinous theatrical experiences ever. To raise the bar as high as the moon. To forge from every production an experience no one attending it would ever forget. To evoke the collective indrawn breath, the collective sigh; to have the audience leave, after the performance, staggering a little as if drunk. To make the Makeshiweg Festival the standard against which all lesser festivals would be measured.

But Tony usurps him, has Felix’s contract terminated by vote of the Board of Directors. His replacement? Tony, backed by the Heritage Minister, Sal, a mate of his.

It’s the last thing Felix has to lose: his wife died of a staph infection after childbirth and his daughter, Miranda, of meningitis, aged three. While she was falling ill, Felix was in rehearsals with orders not to be disturbed. His guilt manifests itself as a version of Miranda who lives with him, growing up as she might have done had she not died. Felix talks to her, largely when he’s alone but, occasionally, in front of others.

When Felix loses his job, he retreats to a shack he finds on lane belonging to a farm. Calling himself Mr Duke, he hides away there for twelve years working on two projects: the first, resurrecting the version of The Tempest he was about to direct as part of the Markeshiweg Festival. Felix sees this as a way to release his Miranda from her coffin. The second, getting revenge on Tony and Sal.

In the ninth year of his exile, Felix Duke takes a job as a teacher at Fletcher County Correctional Institute. He begins by using plays he thinks the inmates will connect with – Julius Caesar, Richard III, Macbeth – to much success. But now, he’s decided it’s time to stage The Tempest and to take revenge.

Despite my reservations, I enjoyed this a lot. Atwood’s clearly having fun with it and seeing how Felix was going to enact revenge on Tony and Sal in a prison, during a play, was enough to keep me reading. There is a danger with this sort of project that it becomes an exercise and there are points where it feels as though Atwood is following a blueprint where certain things must happen in a certain way. However, the novel as a whole is lifted by Felix’s imagining of the ghostly Miranda. His grief and his attempt to deal with it bring an emotional connection that’s lacking elsewhere. It’s telling that although this is the subplot, it’s also the thread that brings the novel to a close, Atwood clearly acknowledging its power.

Overall, Hag-Seed is a decent read. You can’t go far wrong with the combined words of Atwood and Shakespeare.

21 thoughts on “Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood

  1. You echoed my own thoughts in your opening paragraph and I’m still not entirely sure I’ll get around to reading this series. Convincing review, though!

      • Heheh. So, do you “see the point” now? Or are you still much of the same mind, but didn’t dislike this particular one? Although I can certainly see why one might feel this way, I’ve always rather liked the idea of these retellings, especially when there are a lot of differences (especially across both time and place, as is the case here), but I read this one because of Atwood not the series of retellings

        • No, I still don’t see the point and while I didn’t dislike Hag-Seed, I wouldn’t have missed anything if I hadn’t read it either. What did you think of it? Did you review? (I’ll go and have a look at your site.)

          • It’s usually an admiration of the author that pulls me into these as one-offs, as I don’t find that I enjoy them very much unless I am quite familiar with the original – so because it was Atwood’s retelling, I was there. More often I am intrigued by the idea but unwilling to spend time with the original, which is where the fun lies for me, in the comparisons with the retelling. My thoughts on Hag-Seed are here: http://www.buriedinprint.com/?p=16876

  2. I read the Gap in Time and enjoyed it but I understand the reluctance to read them if you’re very familiar with the plays. I was interested in what you say here about the prison setting because relatively recently I saw an all woman version of The Tempest set in a women’s prison. It had Harriet Walter in it as Prospero and an excellent cast of young actors.

    • That sounds like a really interesting production. I think my main issue is why are we re-writing canonical works, which are largely by men etc. etc.? And I start to feel like a broken record but this level of exposure makes a difference. If some of the writers has done something radical with it, I’d be more inclined to read it but I’d prefer to see a celebration of a female writer or more championing of new writing by young women.

      • Very interesting – the play I saw had used women from a theatre company called Clean Break who had either been to prison or were at risk of going. They acted with incredible energy and passion – as if their lives depended on it in fact. It was a great production.

  3. Thanks for a helpful review. I was a bit disappointed with Hagseed – I usually love Margaret Atwood’s work, but this seemed rather laboured and hard work on her part and the reader’s too. Though I read it recently I cannot remember a lot about the characters whereas those from books hers read years ago e.g. The Robber Bride, are still vivid in my mind.

  4. I have an on off relationship with Atwood. Loved many of her earlier books like Lady Oracle, Edible Woman and The Handmaid’s Tale though I have forgotten a lot now. I also loved The Blind Assassin Alias Grace and liked The Robber Bride. I didn’t read Oryx and Crake ( not my kind of thing) and didn’t much like The Penelopiad and The Heart Goes Last. I can’t decide if I want to read this though it appeals more than those last two I read.

    • That’s a shame, Ali, although I’m pleased to hear I’m not the only person who liked The Blind Assassin. Hard to judge from the others you liked whether you’d like this or not; I don’t think it’s very typical Atwood.

  5. I love Atwood, my Masters was in early modern theatre, The Tempest is one of my favourite plays, yet I still feel meh about this. You’ve nearly convinced me though 😉

  6. I’m glad you owned up as I had exactly the same reaction to these re-workings of Shakespeare. I must say though, your review does sound very tempting!

  7. Pingback: The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017 | The Writes of Woman

  8. I enjoyed Hag-Seed a lot, but I didn’t think it brought anything definitive or essential or even particularly new to my understanding of either Shakespeare or Atwood. I liked Atwood’s Penelopiad far better. I think it plays to her particular strengths: myth, military history, interesting but compromised female protagonists etc., far better.

    • I haven’t read her Penelopiad although I’m certain there’s a copy on my shelf. I’ll give it a go. Thanks for the recommendation.

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