The funny thing with reading a lot and only writing in my odd spare moment on weekends means that I often have to remind myself what I read and if I had written a blog about it yet. I was surprised this morning when I realized that I hadn’t actually written my review of Hag-Seed yet, which shouldn’t be a reflection on the book itself, Margaret Atwood is the queen of fiction as always. It is, however, a pretty good reflection of how scattered my life is right now. And since I’m at home with a fever now seems better than ever to right this wrong.
I will not hide that I am a huge fan of Margaret Atwood. Not just for her impeccable writing (especially since I haven’t read a majority of her vast works) but for who she is an individual and a Canadian. Her work as an environmental activist, literary critic, and defender of libraries for everyone has made her my number one Canadian hero.
When I heard she was participating The Hogarth Shakespeare Project by Penguin Random House, a series of Shakespearean retellings (featuring amazing author and play combos like Gillian Flynn and Hamlet), and most importantly, that she was taking on The Tempest, I knew it was my destiny to read this book. Every English major, theatre lover, or avid reader has the one Shakespeare play that sticks with them for better or for worse. Mine happens to be The Tempest, I play was entered into my life on and off between high school and university.
Amongst her many other talents, Atwood also has a deep love of the theatre and has worked as a playwright and puppeteer. Her love for the theatre shows in the protagonist of Hag-Seed, Felix, the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, who is planning to mount The Tempest in his typically experiemental and modern style until he is betrayed by his right-hand man Tony, and after living in exile in a Hobbit hole eventually taking work as a teacher of a theatre course at a local prison. His choice for the inmates: The Tempest and as the ones who betrayed Felix close in on the performance his opportunity for revenge is at hand.
Hag-Seed is not just a Tempest play within a Tempest play, it’s a love letter to the theatre Atwood imaginatively captures the magical orchestration of Propsero in the form of theatre direction. The magic of artistic direction is what Felix wields and the descriptions of costumes, props, and stage directions are entertaining additions to the novel. The ego and power of a magician who has taken control of an island fits well into the character of Felix, who says, “He can’t back off, he can’t hesitate. He needs to sustain the momentum. Everything depends on his will.” Despite working with the Fletcher Correctional Players, some of whom have a history of violence, Felix despite his older age finds power through the theatre program, allowing these men an opportunity to transform themselves and in their desire for that opportunity room to take full control. To the point that the line between the novel and play begins to blur, whether things are happening as Felix says they are or are treading into the realm of magical realism.
Is the island magic? Felix asks himself. The island is many things, but among them is something he hasn’t mentioned: the island is a theatre. Prospero is a director. He’s putting on a play, within which there’s another play. If his magic holds and his play is successful, he’ll get his heart’s desire. But if he fails…
There are a few differences to the original play. Felix actually chooses his island and is self-aware of the choice he has made noting his own childishness. However, from this pivotal moment the question of Felix’s reliability as a narrator comes into question. If he donned the role of Prospero on purpose, how are we as readers to differentiate between reality and his other manipulations? The first thing he does is throw away his identity and becomes Mr. Duke, a name which he uses to secure his personal island, a shack built into a hill on a farmer’s property, and his job at the prison. It is the wonder at the back of your mind of whether you are to believe what you are reading constantly.
That being said, knowledge of the play isn’t necessary to enjoy Hag-Seed but it reveals Atwood’s witticisms sooner. Since Felix is teaching many inmates who haven’t read the play there are short explanations of plot and themes sprinkled throughout. Tony is short for Anthony, Prospero’s betrayer and brother. Estelle, meaning star, is like a spirit that helps him out of love, something often speculated over about Ariel, although there is a member of the Fletcher Correctional Players who plays the role of Ariel both in and outside of the play. “Merde” is the phrase he teaches the guards at prison to wish him during a play, the double entendre very on the nose. There are rap pieces in the prison version of the Tempest which are fun, and without a beat, open to your interpretation. The first thing it brought to my mind was Hamilton, except the book was written in 2013 so it’s more likely based on Atwood’s own experience with theatre.
I did find the pacing tricky. The first 2/3 of the book are rich with the buildup to conflict, as Felix plots and waits for 12 years just for his chance the novel offers up a riveting portrait of a human character. But once the action starts many of the characters, especially the minor ones, seem to lose some depth. Why do they help Felix plot such a complex revenge? There is little hesitation. And within the sequence of their Tempest performance, Felix’s enemies become near replicas of their Shakespearean counterparts. It calls Felix’s mental state into question. Should his perspective be trusted? This idea is hinted to yet things go off without a hitch, other than moodiness and disagreements of ego in the prep of a play, which are not explored but mentioned in passing as routine. You’re reminded once again that this book is about Felix really; designed, starring, and told by him.
The big question for me was: who is Felix’s Caliban? Caliban, the representation of slavery, otherness, colonialism in Shakespeare’s play. The book itself is named “Hag-seed,” one of many names given to Caliban in the play (and explained in the novel!). Who is it that slaves and toils? Who is Felix’s other half? I would argue that it is revenge itself. Emotional and provocative, revenge hasn’t been so sweet since the Bard himself.
Atwood’s mastery over imagery and dialogue stands, and I couldn’t put the book down which is how I flew through it in a handful of days. This is vengeance as I haven’t seen in a while. Long brooded but still with a sense of humour, wizened Felix with his charms of eccentric costumes and cast of characters. No wonder it was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.