A new book by Margaret Atwood! Very exciting. I went along to her talk at the Southbank Centre (proper fan moment) and heard her discuss the book, her life, and her work. She is one interesting lady. She also has good shoes (silver!). There’s something incredibly refreshing about listening to someone like her talk. Intelligent, yes, talented, yes, but there is something fundamentally captivating about a person who is just so interested and passionate about the world. With so much whining about things on social media, here we have a woman of immense literary talent who devotes her time to helping out local libraries, who supports campaigns to help combat global warming, and who writes graphic novels about a part-cat, part-bird superhero called Angel Cat Bird. Now there’s someone I would like to invite to dinner.
And, of course, she talked about her new novel, Hag-Seed. A reinventing of The Tempest, it is the fourth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, following Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of The Winter’s Tale, Howard Jacobson’s of The Merchant of Venice and Anne Tyler’s of The Taming of the Shrew. It’s a tricky thing, as she acknowledged herself, to re-invent such a well-heeled play from such a respected writer as Shakespeare.
Rather than trip around the subject, Atwood tackles this head on, and allows her main character in on the secret – he is perfectly aware that his life is following the structure of the play, and in fact is in the process of trying to put on a performance of it. He even has a daughter called Miranda. This deft layering of story onto story is a little nudge to the reader; we’re all in on it. It allows for both subtle and overt analysis of the play, its characters themes and ideas, as well as making us feel very clever for getting the references.
Our Prospero is played by Felix, a director who has been spurned from the local Festival, usurped by (of course) his evil brother, and shunned by society. He goes to an obscure little hovel to lick his wounds, and is kept company by his visions of a daughter who died at age 3. So far, so familiar. In fact, I found the opening a little ploddy, but it all took off after Felix takes a job working in the Fletcher Correctional Institute. Here, we meet a new cast of characters, in the inmates who provide the acting skills for various Shakespeare plays. His dream is to finally stage his perfect Tempest. Of course, underpinning all of this is Felix’s desire for revenge. One day he will confront his brother and take back what is rightfully his. Best way to do that? Putting on some plays with criminals, apparently. I have to say I was curious as to how this particular plot would play out, but I needn’t have feared. With Atwood, you’re always in safe hands, and she steers the course of the novel deftly towards its climax.
Some reviewers have found the inmates to be lacking depth as characters. Personally, I quite liked that. It allowed for a layering of interpretations and modernisation to be done through them, without needing to know who they are. They almost figuratively played the part of Prospero’s goblins (they do literally too), in that they are a means to an end, rather than characters in themselves. As Felix brings together his plans for The Tempest, we also have a rather important aside – namely the power of literature to educate and engage the incarcerated. It’s an oft-repeated accusation that prisoners have a ‘cushy’ life, and funding for programmes like literature or drama is often cut. Atwood reminds us of the power of performance, and how a sense of pride and a desire for knowledge can be a powerful tool in rehabilitation. Also, it’s great to hear hardened criminals only swearing in Shakespearean. I might use that one in my classes.
Because the characters aren’t fully realised, there are some great things that can be done with them. We have modernised Shakespearean rap, continuations of the story into fanciful places, modern twists and interpretations of characters and actions, and of course (it being Atwood) a high-kicking Miranda who refuses to be anyone’s plaything. At times it is playful and fun, at others a deep commentary on the nature of loss, identity, and how people can learn to trust each other and heal themselves. I particularly liked how much spotlight was given to Caliban, the Hag-Seed himself, whose origins and destiny are scrutinised, especially by the characters that identify with him.
In re-imagining something, the idea is to take the coherent themes and see how they can be manipulated. Having such an overt agenda in this book means that we can join in, something that I found truly engaging. It’s like an English teacher’s dream. The resonance of Shakespeare’s words are always far-reaching, but it seems that Atwood brings that very notion directly to the surface, rather than hiding it beneath a completely different story. I loved the overt references and discussion and hey, who doesn’t like a few goddesses thrown in for good measure?
Atwood, through Shakespeare, reminds us that The Tempest is all about confinement. In many ways, we are all imprisoned. Sometimes by society, or the way others treat us, or perhaps in prisons of our own making. We are reminded that it is self awareness and hope, not desire for revenge, that will ultimately allow us to be free.