The Hogarth Shakespeare series is a project rewriting some of of the Bard’s most famous plays, into novels by some of the world’s best-loved authors.
Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood is based on The Tempest.
If you thought a play within a play was Hamlet’s domain, think again. In Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest Prospero is a famous theatre director, Felix Phillips, who is ousted from his role and ends up putting on plays in the ‘Literacy through Literature course’ at a local prison under the name of Mr Duke.
Hag-seed is an incredibly clever exploration of the themes of this play, namely the role of prisons within it. As Felix enacts his revenge using the inmates he directs, the other characters are complicated – we have the Ariel he casts 8Handz, as a kind of Ariel, but he is also haunted by his daughter Miranda who died age 3, and so becomes a kind of spirit like Ariel.
Equally, the death of Miranda complicates who takes on this role in the play. Lady Luck, or the Auspicious Star is cleverly personified in Estelle – showing how Atwood’s attention to detail is faultless. The play is modernised both as Atwood’s tale and in the performance of The Tempest that Felix stages which features rap-numbers, dance and significant reinterpretations.
Atwood’s invented world of the play is clever and complex, making you think twice about the play you thought you knew. It deals with issues of revenge, justice, imprisonment and mercy in whole new ways, rethinking the ways in which we perceive these. We get to know the inmates and can sympathise with them, they are funny, real understandable people.
The depths which Atwood reaches with Felix explore the character in completely new ways, we see his motivations, emotions and manipulations but also a softer and more vulnerable side. The references, allusions and explorations within this are an English student’s dream and it feels as though it may have been an exercise of intelligence for Atwood, who lists off a dozen different sources for reference in her acknowledgements. I can’t say how good this book would be if you weren’t aware of it’s heritage – but the story was good with an interesting plot and was well-paced, reaching an exciting climax. However most of the fun came from knowing what the hidden references and meanings were, so a knowledge of the play was important here.
I studied The Tempest for four years in a row at school and was frankly pretty sick of it – I’ve never seen or studied it again since. If this book could make me enjoy a play which I’m not a huge fan of then it really did its job. Atwood’s retelling was everything a retelling of Shakespeare should be – an accessible, exciting and engaging update to the Bard’s words.