Canadian legend Margaret Atwood pays tribute to historical legend William Shakespeare in Hag-Seed, a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Atwood’s ingenuity is apparent as the eccentric protagonist Felix not only dares to recreate the Tempest on stage but lives a similar story line to that of the play. Atwood’s poetic use of the English language blended with some entertaining Shakespearean curse-words, create a welcoming and fun experience for readers. Hag-Seed is the fourth book in the Hogarth Shakespeare Series, a project that aims to have the Bard’s stories retold by modern day, bestselling authors.
After a shocking start that foreshadows things to come, Atwood takes readers back in time to reveal how we’ll reach that stunning climax. As the story begins to unfold, we find a bitter Felix in a downward spiral of seclusion and mental instability after being fired from his long-time position as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. Felix believes this dismissal to be a well thought out coup by his former assistant, Tony, who has visions of a career in politics. Felix retreats to a shack in rural Ontario and begins to plot his revenge.
Hag-Seed also sheds light on the benefits of educational programming in the prison system, which is not surprising as Atwood has vocalized her thoughts on the current justice system before. Throughout The Tempest, there are nine physical and metaphorical prisons that various characters find themselves trapped in. Atwood takes this portion of the retelling head on, by having much of the novel set in a correctional facility with the inmates as actors in Felix’s rendition of The Tempest. Atwood’s skilled character development leaves us with many thought-provoking questions about the gray areas of the justice system and its convicted parties. Does the criminal justice system “work”? Can prisoners be decent people who have done bad things? Should rehabilitation programs receive more funding? Can people change for the better?
While progressing through the plot, Hag-Seed readers will find themselves paying close attention to the developments of Felix’s story in comparison to The Tempest play that he is preparing. While reading, it often seems like the depth of Hag-Seed’s layers are endless: In essence, the book is about a man whose life is a modern day version of The Tempest. Within that story, the man is creating his own modern rendition of The Tempest. At the base of it all is The Tempest itself. The sheer artistry required to patch these pieces together into a well-written story is incredible. Atwood further shows her cunning as an author by using a balance of foreshadowing and red herrings to keep the reader guessing up until the end. Will Felix get a happy ending? How dire is his revenge plot, considering his current mental state? Will his Tempest ever see the light of day?
As with The Handmaid’s Tale and other published works, Atwood merely provides the loose thread of a story for the reader to unravel at their leisure. Of course, as the book progresses, the story unravels at an exponential rate, making the book near impossible to put down. Atwood answers the essential questions, and solves the presented mysteries, all the while allowing the reader to make assumptions and reach conclusions of their own. Hag-Seed follows this formula and leaves readers wondering what happens to the characters after the pages end. In this particular case, not only do those feelings apply to Atwood’s characters, but to Shakespeare’s Tempest characters as well.
After reading Hag-Seed, Shakespeare fans may find themselves revisiting the classic play with fresh eyes and new ideas. Non-Shakespeare fans may find themselves converted; a success for Atwood in and of itself.
Click here to purchase Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold