Brave New World, Brave Old Questions: Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
What does it mean to adapt Shakespeare? Margaret Atwood’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a take on The Tempest titled after an insulting name for Caliban, asks this question, with knowledge that it is a old question without an easy answer. When discussing previous novels in the series, I have pointed out how many reworkings of Shakespeare there have been and how these end up inevitably compared with each other. Hag-Seed is open to comparison for sure.
For starters, comparisons with the Canadian TV series Slings & Arrows are beyond obvious. Hag-Seed is also set in the world of Shakespeare festivals, breakdowns, and life imitating art. In both, actors and directors fail to see the divide between the play and the world, inhabiting a certain famous line of Shakespeare’s. Reworking Shakespeare often requires this sense that Shakespeare’s world can easily bleed into ours, as is required in Atwood’s novel to engage the inmate actors.
Hag-Seed also focuses upon the use of Shakespeare in prison rehabilitation, a subject discussed both academically and in theatrical productions like the Donmar’s current trilogy (which also uses The Tempest). However, in Hag-Seed the rehabilitation is more focused upon the central character of Felix than the prisoners who, while important, do not learn as much as the grief and revenge stricken man who teaches and directs them.
Atwood’s method of combining performance of The Tempest with a man who – delusional or not – sees himself as a version of Prospero creates a metanarrative about trying to fit Shakespeare to particular purposes that ultimately ends up more ambivalent than perhaps to be expected. It is true that the plot concludes in keeping with the ending of The Tempest, but the play is also something that must be broken away from, with Felix needing to relinquish his version of his dead daughter Miranda. The actors imagine afterlives for their characters, performing more reworkings suggesting how Shakespeare can be full of possibility.
The novel is both enjoyable and at moments a touching look at grief, but also feels in some ways to be a comment on the Hogarth series: full of literary references winking to those in the know, but also questioning the usefulness of projecting Shakespeare onto everything. A late written play that questions genre and all-mighty authorial power, The Tempest can be both a strange and an engaging play. Like The Tempest, Hag-Seed questions what comes before it but also uses these tropes and expectations. Felix’s plot involving the play may seem contrived, but it has to work, because it works in The Tempest.