Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood.
Vintage 2017 (2016)
Now does my project gather to a head:‘The Tempest’ Act V Scene I
My charms crack not; my spirits obey; and time
Goes upright with his carriage.
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.
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.
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