Book review: Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood PIC: Alex Hewitt
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Of all Shakespeare’s plays, The Tempest is perhaps the most intriguing. It was placed first in the Folio which collected his works posthumously, and may well be his only work that showed “originality” – it does not rework an older story and invents its own mythology. Perhaps that is why it is the work which has been reinterpreted most frequently. William Davenant (who claimed to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son) and John Dryden started this in 1667 with The Enchanted Isle, and it goes on through Robert Browning’s 1864 “Caliban Upon Setebos” and WH Auden’s 1944 The Sea And The Mirror, to works like Fred Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet of 1956 and Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books in 1991. To reimagine the most reimagined work of Shakespeare takes some bravado; and if anyone were to accomplish it, it would be Margaret Atwood.

Hag-Seed is an absolute triumph. In contrast to some of the other titles in this series, such as Jeanette Winterson’s take on The Winter’s Tale, The Gap In Time or Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name, his version of The Merchant Of Venice, Atwood’s is such a success because it is not only a new vision of The Tempest, but an astute and complex reading of “Caliban Upon Setebos” itself.

In Atwood’s adaptation, our Prospero is Felix, a theatre director who has been ousted from his position as artistic director of a festival by his ambitious underling Tony. Felix goes into hiding in a backwoods shack, and becomes the co-ordinator of a “Literacy Through Literature” programme in the local prison, going under the pseudonym of Mr Duke. After some successes with Shakespeare, he decides to stage The Tempest with the prisoners, and uses the production as a way to lure his foes into an elaborate trap: just as Hamlet uses the play-within-the-play The Mousetrap to reveal the guilt of his usurper uncle, Felix will use the felons’ Tempest to tempt out the real villains. The prisoners have to rewrite The Tempest into their own demotic raps, and have to think about the characters’ motivations and the overall meaning of the play. Ingeniously, Atwood focuses on it being a play about imprisonment – Ariel in the knotted pine, Caliban styed in a hard rock, Prospero abandoned on the island, Ferdinand put to hauling logs – indeed, she finds nine different versions of prisons in the play. But Felix is a prisoner as well. He is bound not just by his ceaseless resentment at Tony and his cronies, but by grief: he is a widower, whose only child – named Miranda, of course – died in infancy. Out in the sticks he sees or hallucinates his daughter as a spirit who helps him; so she is also a version of Ariel. Once one adds into all of this Disney princesses as the masque, Godzilla costumes for Caliban and Prospero’s cloak made from plush toys and glitter, the effect is ravishing.

There is a huge momentum in the coming-together of Felix’s revenge, but what is even more impressive is the aftermath. The narrative climax comes four-fifths of the way through, and then Felix asks his cast to imagine the afterlives of the characters in The Tempest. It means that the play’s polyvalency – its capacity to elicit multiple interpretations – is put centre stage. These are among the most intelligent and inspiring readings of The Tempest I have read, and best of all, they contradict each other. “The thing about Shakespeare,” as the novel puts it, “is that there’s never just one answer.” Splendidly put and completely true.

Lovers of Shakespeare will find plenty of “Easter Eggs” in Atwood’s prose. This again is foregrounded in story. For example, Felix has a rule that the prisoners can swear, but they can only use curse-words taken from the play they are studying. So they can say red plague, freckled whelp, wide-chapp’d rascal, earth, tortoise, pied ninny and moon-calf but none of the usual profanities. This is similar to what Anthony Burgess did in Nothing Like The Sun, a novel which only uses words found in Shakespeare (bar one, but no spoilers). It puts Shakespeare’s language close to the heart of the novel. But not at its heart.

The core of it is Atwood’s perceptive recognition that The Tempest is a play about the possibility of forgiveness, about the necessity of letting go (“but this rough magic / I here abjure” as it has it). She rises to the challenge of writing about this with the humanity one finds in Shakespeare himself. Writing about goodness is very difficult indeed, and somehow Atwood’s recent career has seemed to specialise in this: even the transgenic pigs in the Oryx And Crake trilogy were eventually redeemed. Instead of being mimsically nice, Atwood demonstrates how goodness and righteousness, empathy and integrity, kindness and caring might be very different things indeed. She is a taxonomist of competing virtues.

She was the ideal author to take on this project, and I am sorry that the publishers didn’t ask her to imagine all 39 plays. I am not ashamed to say that I didn’t just have a lump in my throat by the end of Hag-Seed, I had tears on the fringed curtains of mine eyes.

*Hag-Seed, Hogarth Shakespeare, £16.99

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