Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

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“Hagseed”, by Margaret Atwood, is the fourth proffer in an intriguing series of novels, by Hogarth, based on Shakespeare’s famous works; in this case “The Tempest”. Set in modern-day Canada the novel stars Felix, art director of the Makeshewig theatre festival, the Prospero of this comic, tender retelling of Shakespeare’s last play.

Atwood’s Prospero, Felix, is as exaggerated as he is complex. He stages wild productions in Makeshewig, a domain as grand in Felix’s world as Milan is for Prospero. He is a widower but has also lost his Miranda when she was only three, a detail elevating Atwood’s offering to the realm of the authentically tragic. As in “The Tempest”, there is a spectacularly disastrous fall from grace leaving the protagonist isolated, half-mad, and plotting revenge. It is a failure of imagination that leaves Felix undone. His theatre partner Tony, the operations manager of the festival, whom it’s discovered too late has his own ambitions, betrays him. He is cast away, disgraced, forced to live a hermetic existence in which he feverishly half-believes he is raising a ghostly version of his lost daughter, in the cold Canadian country-side.

Atwood, true to Shakespearean form, stages a-play-within-a-play. This elegant device perfectly handles the problem of modernising Shakespeare’s more fantastic elements; the faeries, nymphs, and spirits. Felix stages “The Tempest”. Sating his vengeful drive and his need for rehabilitation, Felix takes a job teaching literacy to prisoners. The play becomes a vehicle for revenge and it is during the performance, in perfect step with the play itself, where the bad-guys meet their undoing.

The novel perfectly mimes the play, though at times apes it. Felix spends twelve years in isolation, though he is not stranded, an adroit understanding of depression and grief’s power. Atwood’s wry characterization, pays particular attention to Felix’s darkening mind, while deftly honouring the original. Her Prospero is self-effacing, aware, and tragically broken. But Atwood’s comic timing, never dips into melodrama.

The actual staging of the play is cumbrous, Atwood misses the credulity mark. Her characters behave in criminal ways. Despite their satisfyingly evil-spiritedness that conjures up the kind of wraith-like malevolence Shakespeare’s demons usually inspire, their actions aren’t credible.

In spite of this nod to Shakespearean signature impetuousness, the plot succeeds in giving the reader their due. This is an ambitious recitation of the story, experimental and economical as only Atwood can be. Full marks!


You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

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