Book Title: Hag-Seed
Series: Hogarth Shakespeare Project
Author: Margaret Atwood
Goodreads Link: Click here
Star Rating – – O brave new world, That has such people in’t!
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in return for an un-biased review.
A play, within a play, within a play. This latest book by Margaret Atwood is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. A number of authors are creating new, modern re-tellings of some of Shakespeare’s famous plays. Like most American kids, I was introduced to Shakespeare through school. Romeo and Juliet to be exact, ugh, hated that play. I’ve also seen some movie adaptations, and attended a few local live productions. I can appreciate Shakespeare but he is definitely not a favorite of mine. However, I adore Margaret Atwood, so I was ready to put some work into this in order to read her new book.
Hag-Seed is based on The Tempest, which I’d never read before. I read the play in preparation, and then visited the SparkNotes webpage, among others, to help me interpret what I’d read. Now I felt a little more prepared. In the play, a magician named Prospero, is tricked out of his position as Duke of Milan and sent out to die in a leaky boat, accompanied by his tiny daughter Miranda. They survive and many years later, he is presented with an opportunity for revenge against the very people who supplanted and nearly killed him. It’s an interesting story, full of tragedy and shipwreck, fairies and monsters. It was not easy reading. I felt pity for characters I felt sure I should hate, and disdain for characters I assumed I was supposed to love. I was confused, but ready to start Hag-Seed.
In Atwood’s book, Felix (Prospero) is the Artistic Director of a theater company in Makeshiweg, Canada. He is ousted by an up and coming director who he believed to be a friend. His plight is heartbreaking. Felix’s Miranda died as a very small child, and he is destroyed by this new loss of his job coming on top of his grief for his little girl. Ms. Atwood once again shows insight and compassion in how she deals with his resultant depression and disconnect with reality. Years later, he gets a job directing a theater class in a local prison. He insists that the prisoners be allowed to perform Shakespeare. It turns out to be a great success. He charms (magically? ha!) the prisoners and guards into cooperation. Some time later, he is presented with an opportunity to put on a play for the very people who had destroyed his life and he jumps at the chance. The play’s the thing, and for him that play must be The Tempest. He plans to use the prisoners to exact revenge for the wrongs that were done him so many years before.
It’s hard to pigeonhole The Tempest into a particular genre. It is certainly not a Tragedy but it’s also not fully Comedy. Hag-Seed is no different. Parts of it are heartbreaking and touching while others are just plain hilarious. The production itself is flamboyantly fantastic. Ariel as a space alien?! Oh my goodness! Disney Princesses make an appearance as mythical Greek Goddesses! Caliban raps his speeches while wearing a Godzilla head. I know it sounds absolutely ridiculous, and you’d be right, but it really is magic, pure magic! However, when the time comes for the play to start and for Felix’s vengeance to be enacted, a feeling of doom comes over the reader. A crash of thunder, the sound of a storm, and I want to cover my eyes. This cannot end well.
Ms. Atwood, for all her playing around with characters and settings of the original play, is an informed author. The amount of research and hard work that must have went into the making of this book is something wonderful. Her respect for the source is tangible, and I feel that reading Hag-Seed really helped me understand The Tempest so much better than when I started. She reminded me as well that part of the beauty of Shakespeare is that each reader can interpret it in different ways. I don’t have to be nailed down to some High School teachers ideas. I can love it in pieces if i like and can feel for the characters as I see fit. Thanks Felix, I learned a lot from your class! Thank you Ms. Atwood, I learned a lot from your delightful, sparkling book. Thank you Hogarth Press, what a wonderful way to re-introduce us to Shakespeare! I recommend this book to everyone.
Bonus Link: Please visit the Hogarth Project to see the list of other books that are included. I’m already reading Vinegar Girl based on The Taming of the Shrew and I’d love to read more!
Song for this book: Guns and Ships – Hamilton (I chose this because I couldn’t get Hamilton out of my mind when the prisoners rapped their lines in The Tempest – this must have been what it was like!) 🙂