Shakespeare Continually Retold

I love a modern retelling of Shakespeare. They can be insightful, thought-provoking, or just damn fun. For 23rd April—Shakespeare’s deathday/possible birthday and World Book Night in the UK—I’ve gathered together my thoughts on the current (and upcoming!) Hogarth Shakespeare series of modern novel retellings of his plays.

  • The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson – A transatlantic, slightly alternate universe version of our modern world in which The Winter’s Tale unfolds as a story still full of jealousy, grief, and discovery. The complex relationship between Leo, his wife MiMi, and his best friend/ex-lover Xeno is a highlight, turning a strange plot device in Shakespeare into an interesting look at three characters falling apart. The book that really sparked my interest in the series (read my full review here).
  • Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson – Jacobson’s take on The Merchant of Venice is a little different to the rest of the series in that instead of updating Shylock fully, he parallels the sixteenth century character with a modern version, the art dealer and father Simon Strulovitch. The backdrop is rich side of Manchester and the updated plot line is quite impressive, but the merging Shylock’s world with Strulovitch’s and the writing style of the novel make for a dense read.
  • Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler – In my original review, I said that this book wasn’t necessary because 10 Things I Hate About You exists. I stand by this statement, though more because I found the message of Vinegar Girl confused rather than ambiguous and its ending downheartening without illuminating on Shakespeare’s ending than because I think the enjoyable teen film is a work of genius. You might enjoy it. I didn’t.
  • Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood – There is something endearing about the way that Atwood takes Prospero’s slightly flimsy plot for making his enemies see their bad deeds and turns it into an equally flimsy plot in which Felix tries to show the injustice done to him through a performance done by the inmates he has been teaching The Tempest to. The in-jokes about the existence of Shakespeare’s plays in these modern worlds really reaches its peak, with Shakespeare as a double meta-narrative. Read more in my review here.
  • New Boy by Tracy Chevalier – New Boy isn’t out until May, but I highly recommend you grab it when it is. Othello is retold in a tense and claustrophobic day in a 1970s Washington schoolyard, as new boy Osei finds himself out of place in the entirely white school. The strange timeline and irrational jealousies of Othello find themselves a good home in this novel, where intensity is heightened because this schoolyard is the world for most of these students. I review it in more detail here.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

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.