In 2015 Hogarth launched the Hogarth Shakespeare project to have Shakespeare’s plays retold by acclaimed or (more frequently) popular novelists. Gratuitous? Yup. Lazy? Sure. Good idea? Nope. Money grab? Yahtzee! But, hey, Hollywood does it all the time, so why not?
Plus, Hogarth tapped Margaret Atwood to modernize The Tempest. So how bad could it be? Fair enough. Hag-Seed (Ms. Atwood’s adaptation of The Tempest) is not bad. At times, it’s quite enjoyable, but that’s usually when Ms. Atwood doesn’t hew to the play.
Felix is Ms. Atwood’s Prospero. Early on, we learn that his wife died shortly after giving birth to their daughter, Miranda. We also learn Miranda died when she was about 4 years old. In a former life, Felix was the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival, which he planned to make the “standard against which all lesser festivals would be measured.” To do this, he needed money, and that was Tony’s job. However, Felix’s failure to focus on the business side of the festival costs him. Tony convinces the board to fire Felix, and Tony replaces him. Felix has a temper tantrum and goes off the grid – changing his name and essentially exiling himself.
About 12 years later, Felix is working part-time at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute where he puts on Shakespeare’s plays with the inmates. “Power struggles, treacheries, crimes: these subjects were immediately grasped by his students, since in their own ways they were expert in them.” His program is modestly successful.
Tony and some of the more culpable board members are now important government officials. They will be at the institute to see the inmates perform My Fair Lady. Really? You ask. No, that would be stupid. They are staging The Tempest, of course. Felix plots his revenge.
The novel works best when it focuses on Felix’s interactions with the inmates and how they produce the play inside a prison – how they relate to Shakespeare’s works. They are effective and humorous fairies, goblins, and demons, and there is much to like about these passages. Ms. Atwood is adept at handling the “play within a play” aspect of The Tempest, and the prison is a perfect substitute for an island.
But the novel is less successful in addressing Felix’s need for vengeance. In The Tempest, vengeance is central to the plot. At times Prospero is monstrous in his pursuit of it. However, Prospero did not voluntarily exile himself. His brother usurped him and put him in a small boat with his young daughter – leaving them to drift on the sea. His brother clearly wanted them to die horrible deaths, so Prospero’s desire for vengeance is understandable.
Vengeance is central to Hag-Seed as well, and Felix at times is also monstrous in his pursuit of it. But his all-consuming need for vengeance doesn’t hold up. Felix exiled himself. Miranda was already dead, so her life was never at risk. If Felix’s life was in danger, he did it to himself. His desire for vengeance, which drives the plot, is gratuitous. Ultimately, and sadly, so is Hag-Seed.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor
I liked most of this series, with a few exceptions.
Thanks, Liz. It’s been a little hit or miss for me.
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I love the concept!
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Writers have been retelling Shakespeare for a long time. My favorite was Smiley’s A Thousand Acres but I am considered unscholarly.
Totally agree. And A Thousand Acres is a great one.