In Hag-Seed, an entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, Margaret Atwood reimagines The Tempest. Felix, an artistic director of a prestigious dramatic festival, is pushed out of his post by his second-in-command, Antonio, aided by Sal, the Heritage Minister. Humiliated, he arranges to rent a shanty with no hot water, an outhouse, and unreliable electricity likely illegally diverted from the nearby farmhouse. He takes on the alias “Mr. F. Duke” and settles into a life of anonymity.
Like Prospero in The Tempest, Felix is a widow. He also had a daughter named Miranda, but in Hag-Seed, Miranda died at three-years-old from meningitis. In his exile, Felix begins to interact with her, and when it becomes too real, he realizes he needs a distraction.
Online, he finds a posting for a position as a literacy instructor at a nearby prison. When Estelle, coordinator of the program and his lady of light, interviews him and recognizes him, she agrees to hire him and also allows him to follow his own curriculum–teaching the prisoners exclusively through Shakespeare. Atwood spends some time outlining Felix’s pedagogical methods which are quite interesting. For the book, she researched prison literacy programs, and while I’m not sure if his curriculum has a real life analog, the very fact that such programs exist is hopeful to me.
In the twelfth year of Felix’s exile, Estelle invites him to lunch with news. Tony, now the Heritage Minister, and Sal, now Minister of Justice, plan to eliminate the program, but before their announcement, they are going to come in person to see the play staged by the students in Felix’s class. Estelle is surprised that Felix isn’t more distressed by the news, but internally, he is already developing a plan: he will stage The Tempest and finally get revenge on his nemeses.
As fitting a retelling of one of Shakespeare’s comedies, Hag-Seed is at times humorous and even over the top, especially when it comes to the costumes and staging that Felix develops for his Shakespeare productions. At the same time, it provides such an interesting analysis of the play through the discussion Felix has with his students while teaching. The raps they write to include in the play while interesting thematically read as puerile, though.
With so many prisons in the play, Atwood made an interesting choice in setting the book in a prison. The convicts are interesting foils for Felix, but aren’t fully developed. Though we know why they were convicted, their dubious skills in most cases are not utilized. Furthermore, their motivation to help Felix in the face of the larger risk seems unlikely to engender cooperation in his plan for revenge.
Hag-seed is another name for Caliban, the denizen of Prospero’s prison island, and to be honest, the name of the book is one of the reasons it took me so long to read this book by one of my very favorite authors. The prisoners all identified with Caliban and wanted to be cast in the role, and Felix’s desire for revenge turns him a bit into a monster, but these things don’t seem to justify the title.
Still, the Hag-Seed is an enjoyable read and Felix is a complex character whose relationship with his long-dead daughter is almost more incentive for him than revenge itself, and it is that relationship that must be resolved in the course of the novel. I didn’t think this had Atwood’s typical voice, though I wasn’t necessarily expecting it in a a retelling of Shakespeare, but it did have her typical quality.