A dish served cold

Magician: AI-generated artwork via Wombo Dream app

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood.
Vintage 2017 (2016)

Now does my project gather to a head:
My charms crack not; my spirits obey; and time
Goes upright with his carriage.

‘The Tempest’ Act V Scene I

How could you go about updating while at the same time respecting the plot of a four centuries old play? One way would be to simply set it in the present and have everyone ignore the fact that characters resemble, even share the same names as, those in the old story. Another way would be to recast it as a genre work – magic realism, say, fantasy, or science fiction – that allows for a parallel presentation of plot and characters where the original wouldn’t impinge because it mayn’t have existed.

An approach involving huge risks would be to utilise metafiction, in which original characters and plots are deliberately referenced: how then to avoid individuals consciously knowing they’re playing pre-existing roles and so deliberately sabotaging outcomes? Margaret Atwood turned these risks to her advantage by copying Shakespeare’s own trick of a play-within-a-play, as when the revenge tragedy Hamlet includes the dumb show ‘The Murder of Gonzago, or The Mousetrap’ in which to “catch the conscience of the king.” Or, indeed, when The Tempest itself includes a masque.

With Hag-Seed she cleverly refashions The Tempest as a kind of ‘revenge comedy’ that takes place within a Canadian correctional institution, with Shakespeare’s own words forming a means by which a vendetta may be enacted against unsuspecting victims. By using a light touch she is able to avoid any accusation of over-earnestness, yet she still manages to include issues ranging from the purpose of prisons through corruption in politics and on to coping with loss.

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