My Goodreads review for Margaret Atwood’s Hag-seed states simply: “Oh wow oh wow oh wow. Standing O.” One of, if not the best book I’ve read all year.
I should have known that if any Hogarth Shakespeare author were to surpass Jeanette Winterson’s impressive Gap of Time, it would be Margaret Atwood. Like Winterson, Atwood takes a very playful approach to adapting The Tempest, but while the genius of Gap of Time was in its linguistic virtuosity, the beauty of Hag-seed is in its sheer sense of FUN. Margaret Atwood at play is the best kind of Margaret Atwood, and I love how she’s so clearly having a ball with this material. Her playfulness and humour are out in full force, making it by far my new favourite of the Hogarth Shakespeare series.
Atwood’s Prospero is theatre director Felix, who teaches Shakespeare to prison inmates. Twelve years ago, he’d been the Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival until he was betrayed by his protege and fired. When he learns that his former protege and other theatre colleagues, who are now politicians, would be visiting the prison before shutting down its Shakespeare program, he sees his opportunity for revenge.
Atwood sets the comedic tone early, with this gem on page 1 from the inmates’ production of The Tempest:
ANNOUNCER: What you’re gonna see, is a storm at sea:
Winds are howlin’, sailors yowlin’,
Passengers cursin’ ’em, ’cause it gettin’ worse:
Gonna hear screams, just like a ba-a-d dream,
But not all here is what it seem,
Now we gonna start the playin’. [p. 1]
There’s an irreverence to the language, and a hard rhythm in its tone that makes it such a joy to hear and I like to think is probably similar to how Shakespeare’s audiences responded to his own rhythms. To be honest, throughout most of the excerpts from the inmates’ Tempest throughout the story, all I could think of was how much I’d love to see it on-stage myself. I watched The Tempest in Stratford Festival, starring Christopher Plummer, and it was fantastic, but there’s a rough-hewn charm to Atwood’s prisoners’ version that totally gives a fresh take to the story.
Felix’s approach to teaching Shakespeare is to let his students re-write the Bard for their own productions, as long as it stays true to the story and the only cuss words they can use in class are the ones already in the play. You can imagine the hilarious potential in even the everyday dialogue of this story:
“You’re such a poxy communist,” says SnakeEye.
“Shove it, freckled whelp,” says Red Coyote.
“No whorseson dissin’, we’re a team,” says Leggs. [p. 127]
My inner English major geek also loved the deeper conversations within the humour, such as the close reading the inmates gave The Tempest, including some discussions around the racist overtones in Shakespeare’s unjust treatment of Caliban. I particularly loved how each Shakespeare character (the actor and the production team behind them) was given a chance to envision how their story turns out beyond what Shakespeare had written. Not only does this deepen our insight into who they are as characters, but it also reveals to us who the actors are, who brought them to life on stage.
There is an added layer of tragedy as well that I loved in Felix’s production of The Tempest. Originally envisioned as a tribute to his deceased daughter Miranda, Felix was robbed of the chance to put on the production of his dreams at Makeshiweg Festival, and so the play became a sort of magnum opus in his own mind. His staging of it at the prison, while the setting of his revenge on those who betrayed him twelve years ago, is also cathartic, a culmination as it were of his life’s work, and like the magic scheme that Shakespeare’s Prospero unveils on his island, Felix’s staging of The Tempest also appears as the key to his own psychic freedom. In Felix’s mind, Miranda has lived on as a Muse, aging in real-time and fuelling his artistic vision and desire for revenge; the scene where she speaks to him during the prisoners’ production of The Tempest is eerily arresting and simply beautiful.
Hag-seed is such a fantastic, absolutely brilliant book that retells The Tempest with such verve and joie de vivre that it’s best just to sit back and enjoy the ride. I had the privilege of attending an author reading and interview at the International Festival of Authors, and Margaret Atwood read from one of the my absolute favourite parts of Hag-seed: a song and dance routine the inmates came up with called “Evil Bro Antonio.” I’m afraid I don’t have a video of Atwood’s rhyming (a once-in-a-lifetime lit nerd experience!) to share, but here’s an excerpt where Antonio’s character speaks of his brother:
It was my bro called Prospero,
He was the real man,
He was the Duke, he was the Duke, he was the Duke of Milan.
Ooh-ah hah! Ooo-ah hah! Stamp clap, clap stamp, snapsnap stamp.
…He was stuck in his book, doin’ his magic,
Wavin’ his wand around and all that shit,
I took what I like, and that was fine,
Whatever I wanted, it was mind,
I got so used to it.
But he didn’t look, he was slack, didn’t watch his back,
What a fool, not cool, laid out the temptation.
I was bossin’ around the whole Milan nation,
He didn’t see what I took, it turned me into a crook,
Turned me into his evil twin, I went the way of sin,
Only way I could win.
Ooo-ah hah! Ooo-ah hah! Stamp clap, clap stamp, snapsnap stamp. [p. 156-157]
Standing O, Ms. Atwood. Brava!
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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