James Gault reviews Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
What would happen if you asked probably the most accomplished living writer what she could do with the story of Shakespeare’s The Tempest? You’d get Hag-Seed from Margaret Atwood.
This is a rare phenomenon: a novel where the hype doesn’t live up to the book. Even the subtitle, The Tempest Retold, is an understatement. The play is not only retold; it is transformed, it is analysed, it is explained, it is dissected and reconstructed. You get both a novel and a literary textbook for your money here. Yet both aspects are so intrinsically integrated that neither detracts from the other.
The basic idea is simple. A performance of the play is created by a prison theatre group under the direction of a failed director. I might even have thought of that idea myself, but the way the author works all the elements into this framework requires a creative imagination and a technical expertise the journeyman writer can only marvel at.
Felix, the director, is a man with attitude, a chip on his shoulder and a burning determination for his revenge. He isn’t quite sane but he is quite rational. Right from the start, although we don’t know what he’s plotting, we’re totally convinced he will succeed. The suspense is kept up until the brilliant denouement.
The Tempest is not one of Shakespeare’s most loved plays, as Ms Atwood, through the voice of Felix, points out. OK, it’s because we misunderstand it, but the fact is that it’s not a plot most of us are intimately familiar with. It’s not normally on school reading lists, ousted by Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet.
Our lack of knowledge of the play is both a challenge and an opportunity for the author. As the theatre group create their interpretation, create their characters and build their performance, Felix teaches us as he teaches them the deep themes of the plot and characters. And here is the touch of genius. As the story unfolds, we feel the sense of familiarity as we sense the parallels between the play and Felix’s ‘real life’. It is all so cleverly intertwined by a master story-teller.
After reading this novel, I have two recommendations for English speaking educationalists all over the world. Put The Tempest into the curriculum and make Hag-seed the required textbook. I can’t remember ever learning so much and having so much fun at the same time.
SEND YOUR COMMENTS