As you know if you’ve been reading this blog, lately there have been a number of famous writers writing their own versions of famous Shakespeare plays. In June, Anne Tyler came out with her take on The Taming of the Shrew, called Vinegar Girl, and prior to that, in February, Howard Jacobson came up with a new take on The Merchant of Venice, which he called Shylock Is My Name, and last year A Winter’s Tale got a new look in Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time. It’s a sign of how relevant Shakespeare’s characters and plots are, hundreds of years after they were first performed in England, and it’s refreshing and intriguing to see what a modern writer, with her or his own sensibilities and preferences, will do with the timeless works of Shakespeare. Now we have Margaret Atwood, famous for her dystopian works like The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Heart Goes Last, and a slew of others, giving us her version of The Tempest, which should be quite an eye-opener.
The book is called Hag-Seed, and it plays with the themes of The Tempest in a modern setting. Instead of the wizard-king exiled from his kingdom by his brother, as in the original, the main character here is Felix, a former artistic director at a most prestigious theater festival, who was betrayed by his right-hand man, Tony, and lost his position, his reputation and just about everything that made his life worth living. He’s not exiled to a deserted island, like Prospero in Tempest, but he might as well be: he’s living in a two room shack and working under an assumed name, teaching literature at a local prison and putting on an annual Shakespearean play with the prisoners as cast. This year, though, he finally sees an opportunity to get revenge, as he puts on a production of none other than The Tempest itself in the prison. So what we have, which Shakespeare himself would have enjoyed, is the concept of a play within a play within a novel, and characters playing other characters whose lives and actions reflect on their own and vice versa. There are some amusing touches: for instance, Felix only allows the prisoners to curse if they’re using the language from the play, which leads to some interesting exchanges, and some of the prisoners rebel at having to play Ariel, a fairy. But there are also poignant touches: instead of having his daughter, Miranda, in exile with him, as Prospero did in The Tempest, Felix’s daughter Miranda died in childhood, but she is still with him in some ways.
Do you need to be familiar with The Tempest to enjoy Hag-Seed? No. As Felix teaches his students about the play, you’ll learn more than enough to understand what’s going on in the book. Of course, if you are familiar with the source material, you’ll enjoy Hag-Seed even more for her insights into the characters of the original play as well as the characters she’s created here. If you’re a Margaret Atwood fan (and why wouldn’t you be?), this promises to be a delight.