Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Hag-Seed is Atwood’s rewriting of Shakespeare’s, The Tempest. It is the story of Felix, an artistic director for the Makeshiweg Theater Festival. The story starts with Felix’s production of The Tempest. He has lofty plans of putting on the show of the century. In addition, the play was designed in memory of the loss of his daughter, Miranda. Felix is a lonely man who has lost both his daughter and wife. His life work is put to waste, though, when the villain of the story, Tony, finds a way to cancel his play. He retreats to his lonely home in Southern Ontario where he is left waiting for twelve years. In the meantime, Tony replaces Felix as the artistic director of the festival.
He is finally hired by the Burgess Correctional Institution as an instructor for Literacy Through Theater. Felix dives head first into his new position and uses the opportunity to restage his long-lost play. He convinces the inmates that they want to perform his version of The Tempest. In preparation for the play, Felix invites government officials to show off the progress of the inmates. Though, it becomes clear that Felix’s intentions are mostly selfish. To Felix’s dismay, he learns that Tony will be attending in his new role as a politician. Felix takes advantage of the moment and gets his revenge. Rather than show a prerecorded version of the play, Felix has the cast perform it live. As part of the play, the prisoners put on a fake prison riot, which terrifies the politicians who are watching. In the midst of the chaos, Felix catches Tony on camera plotting to murder another politician. Felix uses the footage as blackmail and gains back his job as the artistic director of the festival. The story ends with Felix coming to terms with the loss of his daughter.
Author: Margaret Atwood (b. 1939)
Publisher: Hogarth (New York). 301 pp.
Type of work: Novel
Locale: Southern Ontario, Canada.
In Hag-Seed, Atwood recasts Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a modern-day play-within-a-play, with Prospero updated as Felix, the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theater Festival, known for his increasingly outrageous interpretations. In the grief-filled aftermath of the death of Felix’s daughter, Miranda, he is manipulated by a Machiavellian colleague, loses his job, and goes into exile, where he plots revenge against those who lost him his job. He hopes for retribution after he is hired as the literacy teacher at a local prison and engineers a one-of-a-kind performance of The Tempest.
Felix Philips,artistic director of a local theater festivalCourtesy of Penguin Random House
Estelle, a professor who facilitates Felix’s work at the prison
Tony Price, his assistant at the theater
Sal O’Nally, justice minister
Anne-Marie Greenland, an actor and dancer who plays Miranda in the prison version of The Tempest
Hag-Seed is the fourth published book in the Hogarth Shakespeare project. When Hogarth Press was relaunched in 2012 (the press was founded originally in 1917 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf), the press also launched the Shakespeare project because the launch coincided with the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. This project offers modern interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays in novel form, written by some of today’s most celebrated authors. On request, renowned writer Margaret Atwood chose to reinterpret The Tempest , and she renders a faithful yet original retelling of the play, delving into the psyche of Shakespeare’s Prospero (now Felix) and exploring the intricate theme of imprisonment in the original text. Although some critics question the plausibility of aspects...
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of the plot and the inadequate attention paid to key character Caliban, there is also considerable enthusiasm and admiration for Atwood’s reimagining of Prospero and her comprehensive knowledge of and discussion of themes in the play.
In Atwood’s retelling, Prospero is Felix Philips, the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theater Festival. Felix has developed a reputation for avant-garde productions bordering on the outrageous, such as staging Macbeth with chain saws. His ambition and preoccupation with his next production, The Tempest, is fueled by his grief over the recent deaths of his wife and young daughter, Miranda. Amid this chaos, Felix’s assistant Tony, taking the place of Prospero’s traitorous brother Antonio, appeals to the festival’s board to fire Felix. Felix is fired and escorted out of the building by security, making him unable to stage The Tempest in tribute to his deceased daughter. Tony takes over Felix’s vacant position.
Felix immediately chooses to exile himself in a cabin in the Ontario countryside. This period of Felix’s story has been decried by critics as the least plausible; while Prospero was stranded on a deserted island from which he could not escape, Felix’s exile was voluntary and the ability to leave was well within his power. Nine years later, he gets a job as a literacy teacher at a local prison. A dozen years later, the length of time Prospero lived on the island, Tony and Sal reenter Felix’s life with a visit to the prison and a threat to end the literacy program. Felix then plots his revenge and plans a new production of The Tempest.
Felix, as both an intricate and well-drawn modern man and a thoughtful reinterpretation of Prospero that exhibits a deep understanding of Shakespeare’s protagonist, is one of Atwood’s biggest successes in this book. Felix can be kind and patient when dealing with the inmates. He can be cruel in his revenge, allowing a character to believe his child is in peril. He can also be funny, initiating a rule that the inmates are only allowed to swear using Shakespeare’s language from the play; thus the title, Hag-Seed, an insult Prospero hurls at Caliban. Felix has many layers, and since the story is told in the third person through Felix’s perspective, he is understood more intimately than any other character in the book. He is also a character who earns great sympathy as a despairing father who lost his beloved daughter, Miranda. Felix as the grieving father, that, although it differs significantly from Shakespeare’s version, makes the contemporary portrayal of him real and compelling. Although, as some critics have noted, these moments of grief rest somewhat uncomfortably amidst the silliness of the book; Shakespeare was a master of such hairpin turns from comedy to tragedy and employed them often. Though Felix’s Miranda died at age three, he conjures a version of her to share his hovel in exile, joining him in her ghost incarnation for meals and games of chess. She ages just as Felix does, and like Prospero, Felix eventually realizes he has relied too heavily on her companionship. Somewhat confusingly, however, despite her name and parentage, she mirrors Ariel, Prospero’s enslaved fairy spirit, more closely than Prospero’s daughter.
After this realization, Felix breaks out of his self-imposed exile and, after checking online newspapers, finds an opportunity to teach theater to inmates at a local prison. When other elements of the story seem implausible, such as some of the prison scenes in the revenge plot, or satiric, such as making Ariel an alien so he will not be viewed as too feminine a character for an inmate to play, Felix’s love and grief over Miranda humanize and ground him. Ultimately, Atwood portrays him as a man who is an excellent teacher, bent on revenge, obsessed with the magic of theater, a loner, and a grieving father, making him the most interesting and complex character in the novel.
The secondary characters remain very secondary in this reimagining that has become very much about the Prospero figure. For example, Estelle, the professor who supervises the Literacy Through Literature program at Fletcher County Correctional Institute and meets Felix at a local McDonalds to hire him, does little more than constantly assure Felix she will take care of the details and procure or facilitate whatever he needs, including assisting him with his revenge plot during the inmate performance of The Tempest. Atwood does not offer any details about why Estelle started the literacy program or why she has such a strong degree of influence with all the politicians she maneuvers, raising questions about her motives and ambitions as well as general plausibility issues. Similarly, Atwood discloses little more than basic facts about Anne-Marie, who was the original Miranda in the version of The Tempest that was aborted when Felix lost his job. Felix seeks her out again, twelve years later, to play the role in the prison performance. Atwood implies Anne-Marie is rough around the edges with her cuss-laden dialogue, but she is also a strong and elegant dancer whose career never advanced, partly due to the lost opportunity of playing Miranda. Atwood provides little information, and though there are brief descriptions of Tony and the prisoners at the jail, they are more archetypes than fleshed-out characters, raising many questions that cannot be answered.
Atwood demonstrates her deep understanding of the source text, its themes, and her ability to translate them into a modern context in accessible and meaningful ways. She devotes a fair amount of time to Felix teaching and rehearsing The Tempest with the inmates. At the outset, before production, the prisoners read the play carefully, and Felix instructs them, noting that one of the important themes of the play is imprisonment and asking them to identify all the prisons in the play by character. He tells them there are at least seven prisons while knowing that there are nine, giving the inmates the opportunity to engage the text even more carefully and delight in besting their teacher. The prisoners identify eight, starting with Ariel’s imprisonment in the tree, and Felix encourages them to keep looking for the ninth prison, which he will reveal, if no one else has identified it, after the production has been staged. Atwood takes the opportunity to discuss all the different prisons and their meanings, offering a deep understanding of the play and the consequences of all of the characters being imprisoned. Felix also assigns his prison students a paper, which is to write the afterlife of one key character, and several chapters at the end of the novel are reserved for all of these afterlives, which show important insights into the characters and their predicaments. One prisoner, who writes about Caliban, interprets Prospero’s line, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” to mean that Prospero is Caliban’s biological father, and once Prospero acknowledges Caliban, he helps Caliban with his life and career. The interpretation is dubious, but the thoughtful and intricate way the prisoner explains it shows his true and deep understanding of the themes of the play, such as Caliban’s pain and longing, and provides readers of the novel with strong and thought-provoking literary criticism. Insightful literary criticism of this play-within-a-play is an intriguing and unique fact of this book.
As much as critics admire Atwood’s characterization of Felix and depth of understanding about the play, many note complaints, though often one critic’s complaint is another critic’s focus of admiration. For example, writing for the New York Times, Emily St. John Mandel finds the prose “gorgeous and economical,” while Tegan Bennett Daylight, of the Australian labels the writing serviceable and unremarkable. In terms of the revenge plot at the prison, Mandel notes that too many of those plot points are implausible, while Viv Groskop, of the Guardian, believes them to be “inventive and delightful.” Several critics also question the lack of attention paid to Caliban, whose orphaned and enslaved plight has been widely discussed in postcolonial literary theory and criticism circles. Atwood, however, not only fails to address that aspect but barely addresses the depth or degree of his imprisonment at all, despite the fact that the title, Hag-Seed, in fact refers to Caliban and suggests he will be a much bigger factor in the storyline. Finally, admirers of the original play understand the characters and their motivations, but most critics wonder how many readers will understand the novel if they are unfamiliar with the original story, particularly with regard to the afterlife narratives at the end of the novel.
Critics aside, Hag-Seed is an entertaining novel, balancing humor and poignancy with revenge and anguish. While many will find it an engaging read, it will be most enjoyed and appreciated by those who are familiar with Shakespeare’s The Tempest. For them, Atwood conjures “such stuff as dreams are made on.”
- Bethune, Brian. “Margaret Atwood Recasts The Tempest Inside a Prison.” Review of Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood. Macleans, 7 Oct. 2016, www.macleans.ca/culture/books/margaret-atwood-recasts-the-tempest-inside-a-prison. Accessed 28 Dec. 2016.
- Charles, Ron. “Margaret Atwood Rewrites Shakespeare. Who Will Do It Next—Gillian Flynn? Yes.” Review of Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood. The Washington Post, 3 Oct. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/margaret-atwood-rewrites-shakespeare-whos-next--gillian-flynn-yes/2016/10/03/6869e7ba-8389-11e6-a3ef-f35afb41797f_story.html?utm_term=.55359012629d. Accessed 28 Dec. 2016.
- Daylight, Tegan Bennett. “Shakespeare Goes under Margaret Atwood’s Microscope in Hag-Seed.” Review of Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood. The Australian, 15 Oct. 2016, www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/shakespeare-goes-under-margaret-atwoods-microscope-in-hagseed/news-story/d21be2b437ca5c86a5f2365b1d08747d. Accessed 28 Dec. 2016.
- Groskop, Viv. “Margaret Atwood Turns The Tempest into a Perfect Storm.” Review of Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood. The Guardian, 16 Oct. 2016, www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/16/hag-seed-review-margaret-atwood-tempest-hogarth-shakespeare. Accessed 28 Dec. 2016.
- Mandel, Emily St. John. “Margaret Atwood Meets Shakespeare in a Retelling of The Tempest.” Review of Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood. The New York Times, 28 Oct. 2016 www.nytimes.com/2016/10/30/books/review/hag-seed-tempest-retold-margaret-atwood.html. Accessed 28 Dec. 2016.
- Newman, Karen. “Making Magic.” Review of Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood. Los Angeles Review of Books, 13 Oct. 2016, lareviewofbooks.org/article/making-magic/#!. Accessed 28 Dec. 2016.