Margaret Atwood’s novel Hag-Seed, her version of The Tempest, is the latest in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which so far includes Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew).
I loved this one as much as Vinegar Girl, and it’s a re-telling of a play I already like, so even more fun. Atwood’s novel is about a production of The Tempest directed by Felix, the novel’s Prospero. He is a father who lost his daughter tragically, at the age of three, and also artistic director at a Canadian theatre festival that sounds a lot like the one at Stratford. He plans a production that will be “like the Taj Mahal, an ornate mausoleum raised in honor of a beloved shade, or a priceless jeweled casket containing ashes.”
But Felix gets dismissed from his job due to the machinations of a more politically savvy rival before he can stage his big production. He disappears from his former life, even using a fake name (Mr. Duke), and waits a dozen years for the right situation in which to get his revenge on the rival. In the process, he becomes a little less of a jerk. He takes a job as a reading and literacy teacher in a prison and begins directing them in filmed productions of Shakespeare plays. When the other teachers and officials who work in the prison voice their objections to his enterprise, “he keeps his mouth shut while being bombarded with sanctimonious twaddle” like this:
“Is it really that helpful, Mr. Duke, to expose these damaged men…is it helpful to expose these vulnerable men to traumatic situations that can trigger anxiety and panic and flashbacks, or worse, dangerous aggressive behavior? Situations such as political assassinations, civil wars, witchcraft, severed heads, and little boys being smothered by their evil uncle in a dungeon? Much of this is far too close to the lives they have already been leading. Really, Mr. Duke, do you want to run those risks and take those responsibilities upon you?”
In his head, Felix protests, “Of course it deals in traumatic situations! It conjures up demons in order to exorcise them!” He is, of course, as much in need of this as any of the prisoners. With himself as Prospero and the actress he meant for his original production as Miranda, he casts prisoners in the other roles, which is appropriate, as one of his assignments is to identify nine different prisons in the play. Felix has the prisoners work in teams to discover and convey their own ideas about each character. Ariel’s team, for example, is responsible for special effects.
Much of the pleasure of the novel is reading about the way Felix and the cast members come up with their ideas for getting their interpretation of the play across. Eventually, their ideas about the nature of Ariel and the spirits on Prospero’s island come together in a way that shows Felix how he can get his revenge. At their performance of the filmed play, they trick his formal rival–now one of the public officials invited to see this filmed version of the prison production–into confessing his villainy. The performance includes “magic” with disguised actors, hallucinations, and loud music in the rooms where the officials are watching. At one point the actor playing Ariel tells him he’s selected “Metallica. ‘Ride the Lightning.’ It’s really loud” and Felix replies “That’s my tricksy spirit!”
After the successful production, we get to sit in on the reports by each team of prisoner-actors, and each one is full of insight. Team Hag-Seed’s report is the highlight, especially because Felix had the most difficulty choosing a Caliban, as so many of the prisoners seemed right for the part. They give three different possible endings and give reasons for why the first two aren’t right, eventually presenting a third ending as their version of what they think happens to Caliban after the action of the play:
“By the end, Prospero’s learning that maybe not everything is somebody else’s fault. Plus, he sees that the bad in Caliban is pretty much the same as the bad in him, Prospero. They’re both angry, both name-callers, both full of revenge: they’re joined at the hip. Caliban is like his bad other self. Like father, like son. So he owns up: ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’ That’s what he says, and that’s what he means.
So after the play, Prospero tries to make up for what he did wrong. He takes Caliban onto the ship, runs him under the shower, scrubs off that fishy smell, orders him some fancy new clothes, makes him, like, a pageboy or something, so he can learn to eat from a plate. Says he’s sorry and they need to start fresh. Appeals to the artistic side of Caliban, what with the beautiful dreams and all. Once Caliban is cleaned up and well dressed and has manners, people don’t think he’s ugly any more. They think he’s, like, rugged.
So Prospero sets him up as a musician, back in Milan. Once he gets a break, the kid does really well. He can bring out, like the darkness emotions in people, but in a musical way. He has to keep away from the booze, though, it’s poison to him, turns him crazy. So he makes the effort, and he stays clean.
Next thing you know he’s a star. Prospero’s really proud of him. The kid is top billing at all the duke-type concerts. He’s got a stage name, he’s got a band: HAG-SEED AND THE THINGS OF DARKNESS. He’s, like, world-famous.”
There are three happy endings to this tale, one after another, and my delight was amplified by each one. It’s fun, and fabulous, and it will make you think—about human potential, different kinds of prisons, ambition, love, and even what we might call magic.