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.

Robert Fludd’s ‘memory theatre’ (1619)

Felix Phillips, an innovative and successful actor-director of a provincial drama festival, is surreptitiously ousted from his post, thus consigned to redundancy and obscurity on the eve of his production of The Tempest. From his enforced exile he sees his similarity to Prospero when the latter’s position as Duke of Milan is usurped and he’s cast adrift. In addition Felix’s wife and then daughter – the last named Miranda, after Prospero’s own child – are deceased, adding to Felix’s woes.

After some years he rouses himself enough to apply, as Mr Duke, to Fletcher County’s Correctional Institute as a teacher in a Literacy through Literature program. In time he begins to see a way to get back at those who deposed him, leading to him producing a version of The Tempest which will allow him to bring the architects of his erstwhile downfall to the prison, gather his project to a head and, he hopes, with the help of Fletcher’s prisoners serve up his cold dish of revenge.

On the surface Atwood’s own project might appear contrived with oh-so-similar names and situations re-used, but she adroitly sidesteps all that. Her characters, from the equivalents of Miranda, Antonio and Gonzalo to Caliban (‘hag-seed’) and the island’s spirits, have a life of their own, and anxieties of the ‘will it work or won’t it’ kind keep us wondering if Atwood’s fictional lives will really successfully imitate Shakespeare’s arts. Above all Atwood’s novel is a model of critical textual analysis, encouraging us to consider in depth characterisation, motivation and appearances, with Felix and his incarcerated cast as plausible mouthpieces.

Text-to-image scene generated by this app

I’ve said enough to indicate why I really found this an impressive novelisation (as it were) of the Jacobean play, but it’s very clear that for Atwood herself this was a labour of love, both from her evident familiarity with the text and from what she has to say in the acknowledgements. As a Canadian from Ontario, Atwood will have been proud of that state’s prestigious Stratford Festival, where the play has been performed at least eight times in seven decades; she also follows in the footsteps of fellow Ontarian Robertson Davies whose 1951 novel Tempest-Tost features an amateur group attempting a production of the play in the provincial town of Salterton, with mixed results. (Tempest-Tost itself was even adapted for the stage at the festival in 2001.)

And yet the play’s the thing, is it not? For readers innocent of Shakespeare they may well enjoy the implicit humour, the witty interactions and the ingenious plotting of her adaptation, while fans of the Bard may savour how Atwood gets them to reconsider the morals and ambiguities inherent in staging what is, after all, a fantasy. Also, there are all the little – almost throwaway – touches, as when the prison’s name recalls both the medieval maker of arrows (for the bow of Cupid as well as the barbs of vengeance?) and Shakespeare’s successor at the Globe, John Fletcher, who wasn’t above writing the occasional revenge tragedy himself, such as Cupid’s Revenge.

All very fitting, I think, for what we might call Atwood’s revenge comedy.

Read for Lory’s April Reading the Theatre event, celebrating all things theatrical, and posted in the week of World Book Day when Shakespeare‘s birth and death are usually marked

20 thoughts on “A dish served cold

  1. I bought all the books in this series as they came out and have still not got started on them. It seemed to peter out as a lot of these series do which is both a shame and probably a good thing if plays couldn’t be matched to the best authors. That said, Hagseed, and Winterson’s The Gap of Time are the ones I’d read first. As always, you have some fascinating things to say which makes me want to get this book down off the shelf.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you’d enjoy this one, Annabel – it’s funny, witty, incisive and informative, and works on so many levels. I’ve read a couple of updated retellings of Mabinogion stories and found I would have preferred to reread the originals; I should have thus been leery of this but Atwood’s framing of it as a play within a sort-of-play works really well.

      Winterson also would also be one of the others I’d want to read, as it happens!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m really pleased you enjoyed them, clearly I should give the series another go – though I have to say that I always find new things in the various Mabinogion translations when I return to them.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: A dish served cold – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  3. I wasn’t sure about this one because I’m not a great fan of re-imaginations but ended up loving it. Especially enjoyed the scenes where the cast examine the text of the play and decide on a list of swear words that would be acceptable. The ending was a hoot

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, those “cuss words,” such a brilliant way to use Shakespeare to allow pent-up emotions a suitable outlet. And as well as a clever ending I did like it that Atwood dealt sensitively with Felix’s personal losses, and how he was able to come to terms with the absence of his own Miranda.


  4. piotrek

    Sounds like a sophisticated feast for a smart reader, I’m interested 🙂 I need something that is not a non-fiction about the current war and all the sad things around it… a retelling of a timeless classic might be the way to go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And where justice is not only done but is seen to be done, where revenge is tempered by loving-kindness – it’s what we need to help restore faith in humanity when there are twisted beings who are trying to destroy it. Hope you manage to get round to this, Piotrek. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

          1. piotrek

            Ok, so I’ve just read it and I feel good, a bit of faith in humanity might be restored, so thank you for recommending this one! I see the publisher has a series where contemporary writers retell Shakespeare, I wonder what Jo Nesbo did with, or maybe to, Macbeth…

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Haven’t got round to any of the other offerings – yet – but really glad you enjoyed this! So many insights into human character and motivations which I’m sure every good director explores with his/her cast and which can be applied beyond the play itself

              Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved the idea and Atwood is always a brilliant writer, but I just could not believe in the prisoners, they did not ring true to me – maybe I’m unfair, because what do I know about prisons, but I could not get past it. Still I’m so glad you did read this one and thanks for joining in my month of RTT. It’s been a blast once more for me anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There was, I thought, an air of unreality suffusing this novel, almost but not quite magic realist in feel, which got me over the hump of the unlikeliness of the whole set-up – not just the prisoners (who might, in the UK, be in fact housed in an open prison because not representing a physical threat to anyone) but also the agents of Felix’s own downfall all being present together at the opportune time. But if not a magical realism novel I at least thought this was magical plotting!

      And of course thank you for running Reading the Theatre again, and in the month of April! I hope to be more ready for it next year. (And I appreciate the British English spelling of ‘theatre’, which we anyway ‘borrowed’ from the French. 🙂)

      Liked by 1 person

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