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Margaret Atwood’s new book Hag-Seed is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, which has writers reimagine the Bard’s plays as novels. Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest is ‘a work of genius.’

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Margaret Atwood
Knopf Canada

Illusions, even when we know they are illusions, have an awesome power. They entice, transform, avenge, torment, restore. The complex power of illusion-building is a central preoccupation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, one of the Bard's most wondrous and enigmatic plays. In The Tempest, magic – though illusory – is still potently seductive, dangerous, cathartic and restorative, like theatre itself.

So it is in Margaret Atwood's contemporary retelling of the play, Hag-Seed.

The story takes place in a small town in present day Ontario. Felix Phillips is the edgy and unorthodox artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival. He's getting ready to direct The Tempest, starring himself as the play's infamous magician, Prospero. He hopes the production will help him reconnect with his dead daughter, Miranda, tragically gone from illness at the age of three. Just before the play goes into rehearsal, he is fired and replaced by scheming nemesis Tony (Antonio, anyone?).

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Felix goes into hiding for 12 years, living in a cave-esque dwelling, brooding upon revenge and talking to the imaginary ghost of his daughter, Miranda. Though Felix is cognizant of the complex illusion he creates in Miranda, he continues to indulge himself and cultivate her image, allowing her to age as a child.

Following nine years of shifty solitude, Felix – now going by the pseudonym F. Duke – gets a job offer to teach literacy to the prisoners in the Fletcher County Correctional Institute. He decides to have his prisoners put on productions of Shakespeare's plays. When the program faces cuts by evil Tony and his ilk of ministers, Felix decides to put on a special, interactive production of The Tempest. His production, which forces the real world and the theatrical world to conflate, seeks revenge on his enemies and stars Felix as the enigmatic, vengeful and ever complex sorcerer, Prospero. This play inside the play is, itself, a brilliant intermingling of the world of Hag-Seed and The Tempest.

If The Tempest is Shakespeare's most wondrous play, Atwood's Hag-Seed is, in every way, a wonder. Part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series – in which A-list writers were commissioned to rewrite the plays as novels in honour of Shakespeare's 400-year anniversary – Hag-Seed recasts Shakespeare's timeless appeal. As an adaptation, Hag-Seed is a work of genius. Atwood doesn't shy away from any of the play's ambiguities and complexities, but embraces them fully, performing and interrogating them into the novel's Matryoshka doll of a plot. Her reimagined characters each add their own shade of meaning, their unique understanding of freedom and imprisonment. Atwood makes room in her novel for all of these voices, all of these possibilities. One of the many pleasures of the novel is reading a prisoner's speculation on Caliban's origin story as well as his rap-like chant rant. The Bard, I think, would approve.

Like The Tempest, in Atwood's Hag-Seed one thing is never just one thing. Felix, a.k.a. Prospero, is both the victim of one plot and the master manipulator of another. The actors are also prisoners – dangerous but vulnerable. The means of vengeance – the theatre – are also the means of forgiveness and grace. Illusion is also truth. Atwood's choice to stage The Tempest in a prison exposes these conflicting roles and the many kinds of imprisonment that the play engages. The play after all, as she so rightly observes, is about prisons. But here, prisoners are performers, just as Felix is acting out of his own prison of grief and desire for vengeance. And even though we have been backstage all along, watching Felix assemble the tools and mechanisms of his revenge, he hides from us as any good magician would. The climax is still a wondrous surprise.

The novel, of course, sparkles with Atwood's characteristic wit and play with language. She deftly weaves the language of Shakespeare into her taut and ever shimmering prose, making the lines sing. And there is the pleasure, too, of Shakespeare's curses – the only curse words the prisoners are allowed to use. A joyful celebration of Shakespeare's high and low language, from insults like "whoreson" and "hagseed" to enigmatic lines like "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine."

For readers familiar with The Tempest, Atwood's deeply insightful and complex engagement with the play will delight and awe. For Atwood fans new and old, Hag-Seed is sheer delight – wonderful in every sense. Reading it will no doubt spark a desire to return to the play. As with theatre, its illusions seduce and we willingly allow ourselves to be seduced. Felix says of the Bard, "Shakespeare has something for everyone, because that's who his audience was: everyone." These are apt words for Hag-Seed too. In this shimmering tale that celebrates Shakespeare's tricky genius, his immortal reach, Atwood has given us something for everyone.

Mona Awad is the author of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, which won the First Novel Award and is a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

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