A bold reimagining of Shakespeare’s stormy tale of vengeance, forgiveness and the power of theatre. 4/5 stars.
The blurb: Hag-Seed is a re-visiting of Shakespeare’s play of magic and illusion, The Tempest, and is the fourth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series.
The Tempest is set on a remote island full of strange noises and creatures. Here, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, plots to restore the fortunes of his daughter Miranda by using magic and illusion — starting with a storm that will bring Antonio, his treacherous brother, to him. All Prospero, the great sorcerer, needs to do is watch as the action he has set in train unfolds.
In Margaret Atwood’s ‘novel take’ on Shakespeare’s original, theatre director Felix has been unceremoniously ousted from his role as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival. When he lands a job teaching theatre in a prison, the possibility of revenge presents itself – and his cast find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever…
As part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, Atwood is one of several authors invited to reimagine one of Shakespeare’s stories. Hag-Seed is Atwood’s take on one of the Bard’s last plays, The Tempest. If you’d like to know more about the other authors involved in the project and the stories they were asked to tackle (for example, Tracy Chevalier’s take on Othello), you can find out more here.
I studied The Tempest for 2 years at school and so it’s probably the Shakespeare play I know the best. This definitely influenced my enjoyment of Hag-Seed, which I’m not convinced you’d get a lot out of if you know nothing about the original play.
However, if you do have some foreknowledge of The Tempest, you’ll quickly notice that Hag-Seed is an incredibly inventive reimagining of Shakespeare’s tale. Bringing the story into the present and having a disgruntled theatre director cast himself as an all-powerful Prospero in a version of the play performed in a jail by convicts… well, it’s all incredibly “meta”, but then so is The Tempest.
And, for those who aren’t very fond of the Shakespeare original, Atwood gives us some fantastic new characters in her cast of convicts who are persuaded and manipulated into enthusiastically staging the play. Another brilliant touch is how modern swearing is banned from rehearsals and the prisoners are only allowed to use curse words from the play itself. Hopefully I won’t spend too many days itching to say, “A pox on that” and calling people “scurvy”.
I enjoyed most of the story, and was impressed how Atwood made me feel genuine concern for Felix and his mental state; I don’t think I ever felt that much sympathy for Shakespeare’s Prospero! The only part I didn’t enjoy as much was towards the end of the book where several chapters became reminiscent of a Shakespeare study guide. That said, anyone studying The Tempest should definitely read Hag-Seed as it can only help their understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare’s play and his works as a whole.
Overall: I’m not sure this is one for you if you’ve never read or seen The Tempest. However, if you have any idea what the play’s about, you’re sure to find something to enjoy in Atwood’s witty, lively take on Shakespeare.
Claire Huston / Art and Soul