Adapting Shakespeare is doing the bard honor, as he loved to retell histories and myths to his contemporaries. Shakespeare is welcome distraction, entertainment, poetry, and seed for thought. Especially in troubling times. How fortunate, then, that Hogarth Shakespeare has commissioned acclaimed authors to retell their favorite Shakespeare in prose form. Following Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (the Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name (the Merchant of Venice), and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (the Taming of the Shrew), Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a retelling of the Tempest, is a welcome reminder of the pleasures of Shakespeare’s protean masterpieces. It is, as the original was, a tale full of revenge, vitriol, self-pity, and magic.
In Hag-Seed, Felix, our Prospero, a widow and grieving father of Miranda, is replaced by Tony, the novel’s Antonio, as the director of a Canadian Shakespeare theatre. After twelve years, Felix now teaches Literacy Through Literature program in the Fletcher County Correctional Institute; Tony is, by way of his well-tailored suits, a minister. Upon learning Tony’s plans to visit the prison, Felix, the ‘poor man’, to whom his ever-farfetched and fascinating projects — Perciles with aliens, and such — were dukedom enough, plans to exact revenge with a new production of the Tempest.
The prison is an apt setting for the novel as the Tempest is concerned with confinement and freedom, the relationship between prisoners and wardens. Hag-Seed is best when we see Felix’s confinement in its multiple dimensions. His solipsism, physical isolation, and obsession with revenge and grief make him a complicated and nuanced character.
Although Hag-Seed does not seem to do its titular character justice, Atwood’s latest novel succeeds in adapting the Tempest to fit the novel form. We learn much more about Felix through the narrator than we can learn of Prospero through his words. Shakespeare is not so much a study in character as a parade of characters; a novel, on the other hand, traditionally proceeds from character. In Hag-Seed, we focus singularly our Prospero. Early in the novel, prior to his exile and quickly following the death of his daughter, Felix wonders, “Lavinia, Juliet, Coredlia, Perdita, Marina. All the lost daughters. But some of them had been found again. Why not his Miranda? What to do with such a sorrow? […] He couldn’t face it head-on. He had to transform it, or at least enclose it.” Everything — the conflict, plot, climax, all — depends on how close Felix gets to the transformation and the enclosing that will free him.