Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

This month I’ve been taking part in Nonfiction November, but it’s also Margaret Atwood Reading Month hosted by Naomi at Consumed by Ink and Marcie at BuriedInPrint. I was planning to read one of her longer books – The Blind Assassin or possibly Cat’s Eye, but I found myself running out of time towards the end of the month, so I decided on the much shorter Hag-Seed instead. This book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series of retellings of Shakespeare’s plays by modern authors.

Felix Phillips had a successful career as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival until his assistant, Tony, betrayed him and took his job. Forced to abandon his plans to stage a contemporary version of The Tempest – a play close to his heart, having recently lost his three-year-old daughter Miranda (who shared her name with Shakespeare’s heroine) – Felix drops out of public life and begins to plot his revenge. Under the name of Mr Duke, he applies for a position at Fletcher Correctional, helping to improve the literacy of the prisoners. Here he will have his chance to direct The Tempest after all, while making his enemies pay for what they have done.

The Tempest is a play that I know quite well, although I wish I’d found time to re-read it before starting Hag-Seed. I’m tempted to do that now, but I think reading them in the opposite order would have been more helpful! I enjoyed watching the prisoners as they study the play for the first time and try to interpret it in their own unique way (could Ariel have been an alien rather than a fairy? Would Shakepeare’s songs be improved by rewriting them as rap?) Personally, when it comes to adaptations of books and plays, I don’t usually like to see things being modernised or given ‘contemporary twists’, but even so it was good to see the Fletcher Correctional Players having so much fun and being so inventive.

Felix plays Prospero, the magician and rightful Duke of Milan, in the prisoners’ production, but he also fills the role of Prospero in the framing narrative. The prison represents the magical island to which Prospero is exiled, while Tony is clearly the equivalent of Prospero’s usurping brother, Antonio. Events in Felix’s life mirror events from The Tempest, coincidentally at the beginning, but then intentionally as he begins to orchestrate his plan for revenge. And of course, even as Felix controls and manipulates the other characters, we know that he is also a character and a prisoner, caught between the pages of Margaret Atwood’s novel, controlled and manipulated by Atwood herself.

Having some familiarity with the play does make it easier to understand and unravel the many layers of Hag-Seed, but if you’re not familiar with it, that shouldn’t be a problem as the whole story is told at various points in the novel, in various different ways (including a full summary at the end of the book). We can learn along with the prisoners as they try to identify the nine types of prison portrayed in the play and as they write an analysis of their chosen character and imagine how his or her story might continue after the play comes to an end. I particularly enjoyed the contributions made by Anne-Marie Greenland, the actress and dancer Felix brings in to play the part of Miranda.

As for the real Miranda – Felix’s daughter who died as a child – the novel is as much about Felix’s feelings for her and his inability to let things go and move on as it is about anything else. Without saying too much, I really liked the way that part of the story was resolved and the way the novel ended.

I must read some of those longer Atwood novels soon – and I would like to try another of the Hogarth Shakespeare books too.

20 thoughts on “Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

  1. Café Society says:

    I’ve been disappointed by most of the Hogarth Shakespeare; this is probably the honourable exception. However, if you want a good Sunday afternoon read, Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, which is a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew works well without having any pretensions to being great literature.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve read very mixed reviews of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. This is the first I’ve read and it seems I picked a good one to start with. I would like to try one or two others, so thanks for the recommendation of Vinegar Girl.

  2. Kat Catte says:

    Thank you so much for this spot on review. I hadn’t realised that it was one of the dreadful Hogarth retellings which maybe why it doesn’t seem to be as frequently read as it should be. Beautiful, multilayered retelling. Now, I’m off to find a copy of Vinegar Girl.

    • Helen says:

      This is the first of the Hogarth retellings I’ve read and I would like to read another one, but I suspect I’ve probably started with the best. Some of the others don’t appeal to me at all – maybe I’ll try Vinegar Girl.

  3. Calmgrove says:

    I was both keen and reluctant to contemplate reading this, keen as it got such good notices, reluctant as I’m generally leery of retellings, plus I’ve still got Marina Warner’s retelling of this play as Indigo waiting. However, this excellent review has convinced me to give it a go, so thanks!

    • Helen says:

      I’m not usually a fan of retellings either, but I enjoyed this one as it has so many layers and is much more than a simple retelling. I’m glad you would like to give it a go!

      • Calmgrove says:

        Well, Helen, I’ve gone as far as to go out and buy a copy from our local bookshop, which is rare for me and a tribute to your fine review! It’s there ready for me when I finish my current crop of titles.

  4. buriedinprint says:

    What a fun choice to read for this month! I generally enjoy retellings most when I’ve reread/read the original in close proximity but I didn’t reread “The Tempest” either and I thoroughly enjoyed this volume. There are some very funny bits from the possible interpretations and the shenanigans associated with the production, as you’ve mentioned, plus the preoccupation with prison, always a treat to explore in Atwood’s hands. I’m glad you found the event an incentive to read another of her works and hope you enjoy whatever you read of her next!

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad I was able to join in with the reading month, even though I just managed to squeeze this book in at the last minute! I really enjoyed it and loved the way Atwood’s humour shines through in places, despite the themes of revenge and betrayal. Hopefully I’ll have time to read another of her longer books soon.

  5. Naomi says:

    I haven’t read this one yet, but when I do get to it, it will be as one who has almost entirely forgotten what goes on in The Tempest. I have no plans to read it first and suspect I’ll like the novel just the same!
    Great review, and I’m so glad you joined in!

    • Helen says:

      Thank you – I’m glad I managed to join in, even if it was right at the end of the month! I hope you enjoy this one when you get to it. I don’t think it’s necessary to read The Tempest first.

    • Helen says:

      This is the first of the Hogarth Shakespeare books I’ve read. I would like to try one or two of the others, but I suspect I’ll find them disappointing in comparison with this one.

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    I too thought this was a brilliant retelling. You did a wonderful job here of showing why it is! So glad you enjoyed it. I have truly found all of the Hogarth Series retellings to be excellent, at least the ones I have read so far.

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