“You’re clear, Mr. Duke.” Grins from both of them. What could Felix possibly be suspected of smuggling, a harmless old thespian like him? It’s the words that should concern you, he thinks at them. That’s the real danger. Words don’t show up on scanners.”
I picked up my copy of Hag-Seed many months ago after hearing a lots of praise heaped onto Margaret Atwood for her adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. I naturally had my doubts, as I adore both William Shakespeare and Margaret Atwood, but Atwood successfully takes one of Shakespeare's most famous plays and transforms it into truly something remarkable. The writing is deliciously dark, sharp and extremely self-aware without ever veering into parody territory. It's also extremely funny and exuberant, which makes this re-telling of Shakespeare an utter joy to read.
The plot follows similar strands from The Tempest, which will delight many Bard lovers as there is an eclectic range of nods and references to pick up on but it is also easy to follow for a reader that isn't familiar with the play. We follow Felix, an artistic director of a Canadian theatre festival, as he is cast aside into 'exile' just before he is due to unleash his extraordinary adaptation of The Tempest, a move that would reinvent his career but also acting as a mark of grieving for his deceased daughter, Miranda. What unfolds is a revenge plot that unfolds over twelve years, culminating with Felix staging his version of The Tempest in a correctional facility with his 'actors' being juvenile criminals that he is tutoring. To say anymore would spoil the fun Atwood has created, just strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.
Felix is evidently the 'Prospero' of the novel, the wronged man seeking vengeance on those who betrayed him, but he is such a fascinating character to behold. He has attributes of some of Shakespeare's leading men aside from Prospero, he shares the paranoia of Richard II and questionable 'madness' of Hamlet, but he remains delightfully likeable and you still root for him throughout. He very much is a caricature of many high-brow theatre directors and despite being idiotic, if at times dangerous, there is still a charming demeanour about him., without ever fully realising he is self consciously playing out the play. What really is fascinating is the illusion of Felix's dead daughter Miranda that lurks in the shadows, she never speaks, only is spoken for by Felix. He is aware that she is not real and is another creation of his vast, twisted imagination but he still indulges in his fantasy, which creates an air of empathy and sadness for Felix.
The humour of the novel comes from Felix's cast, the group of prisoners. They all have street names and are strictly told they cannot curse, they can only use curse words from the play, which is where 'hag-seed' derives from, to which they delightfully take on, with hilarious results. The joy in which they take on their roles and their assignments is oddly heartwarming but also seems extremely fitting as a magical eulogy to Shakespeare himself. Atwood combines this love for Shakespeare and love for theatre with her observant, sharp writing, and it is evident that she is enjoying herself as much as Felix or the prisoners. Interestingly the title of the novel is also called 'Hag-Seed', suggesting that sole focus of the book would be Caliban, or that of Sycorax, but alas this never happens, but it never discerns away from the main plot. It's more about the self-referencing play within a play format, like a literary Inception.
Breathing new life into Shakespeare, Margaret Atwood potently writes a novel that sharply makes observations of the theatre and constructs ideas of identity and reinvention, but never takes herself too seriously. Deliciously readable, whether you're a fan of Shakespeare or not!