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.
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.