Book review: Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s retelling of Shakespeare’s Tempest

Margaret Atwood needs no introduction. Nothing one reviewer can say — even if they were a highly influential reviewer — can tarnish her reputation as a great writer. But Hag-Seed, her version of The Tempest written at the behest of the Hogarth Shakespeare series of retellings, is not a great novel.

Compared to Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, the Hogarth series’ Taming of the Shrew, however, it soars. But that’s another story.

Atwood’s Hag-Seed brings the magical Tempest into the 20th century by way of Felix, a narcissistic artistic director for a famous Canadian Shakespeare theater company who is pushed out of his job and ends up teaching the Bard to prisoners at a medium-security facility where he hatches a far-fetched but delightful scheme for revenge against those who deposed him. It doesn’t take a genius to sketch out the premise, only someone who has bothered to listen to a Shakespeare podcast now and then in the last ten years.

Not only is the plot set up just like The Tempest (minus a few characters here and there for efficiency), the play the prisoners ultimately perform as the capstone for their special class is…(drum roll please)…The Tempest. The story within the story being the same as the story might have easily become a distraction, but ultimately this represents the book’s greatest strength: Felix is Prospero and plays Prospero in a production that transcends its setting for all of the characters involved and will delight the reader of Hag-Seed, assuming they make it that far.

Indeed, the plot shows Atwood’s skill. Its denouement makes the reader feel as though they are seated at a theater watching this cunning production with their own eyes while also taking part in the backstage schemes through which Felix is trying to take his revenge.

The characters, however, leave much to be wanted.

Felix uses the pseudonym Mr. Duke to hide his true identity so that his underlying revenge plot isn’t thwarted. This is one of the few self-aware moments in which the character compares himself to Prospero. He also happened to name his daughter Miranda—she’s dead but becomes an imagined character of growing importance throughout the story—drawing another parallel between the main characters of the internal and external stories. Atwood could have taken this a lot further, though, by showing that Felix knows he is Prospero away from the production. He demonstrates that he knows the ins and outs of The Tempest, and probably every Shakespeare play, better than a scholar since his career had depended on it. But his performance is rather straightforward: no winks to the audience or jokes about how he knows what Prospero is going through all too well. He doesn’t even really comment on the character in a way to suggest that they are fundamentally intertwined.

Shakespeare would have jumped at such an opportunity to toy with their similarities.

On top of not fully realizing his likeness to Prospero, Felix doesn’t transcend the character, coming across as little more than a 20th-century knock off of the magician. Rather than explore the fullness of any of the dramatis personae or expand them through her interpretation of the text, Atwood only limits their scope, slashing them down to simple sketches.

The prisoners, especially, look more like caricatures than people one would see in real life. They fulfill all the inmate stereotypes of a lazy Hollywood blockbuster: rude speech, obsessions with women and violence, and edgy (even sometimes racist-sounding) nicknames such as Red Coyote, SnakeEye, 8Handz, and Bent Pencil. They connect with the text by composing original rap lyrics for the production: “I’m the man, I’m the Duke, I’m the Duke of Milan,/You want to get pay, gotta do what I say./Wasn’t always this way, no, no,/I was once this dude called Antonio…” If these were the only lines Atwood let the reader see, it might have been excusable, but she put enough lyrics in the text for a whole original score. And none rise above the artistic merit demonstrated in what you just read.

An optimistic take on her portrayal of the prisoners would be viewing it as an attempt to show they are not just confined by bars and concrete walls but by the narrow opinion people have of them. The prison officials even suggest a “safe” story to adapt for the stage such as Catcher in the Rye or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but Felix at first insists on scripts that appeal to their apparently violent and power-driven natures: Julius Caesar, Richard III, and Macbeth, and only after proving their abilities can they consider putting on a production that includes—gasp!—a fairy.  What more could one expect when they are branded as needing censorship by their prison masters, while their theater teacher judges them incapable of understanding anything that doesn’t fit with their supposedly macho violent natures?

A pessimistic view of this predicament is that so much time and word count was used to manufacture the plot that there were none left to give the characters any depth.

Though the language is strained, problematic, and unbelievable among the inmates and some of the other characters, Atwood’s third-person narrative prose shines. Passages such as the following not only show her efficiency as a storyteller, but her ability to summon complex emotions better than any magical being in her retelling of the story:

Outside, it’s dusk. Felix trudges toward his car. The expected blizzard has already swept through, though it can’t have been major: small drifts of white snow ripple the tarmac.

He drives down the hill in silence. If this were a real first night the cast and crew would all go out, eat somewhere, encourage one another while waiting for the reviews. As it is Felix will have an egg for supper; by himself, unless his Miranda decides to join him. She must be in the car somewhere, though there’s no sign of her.

“Anyway I succeeded,” he tells himself. “Or at least I didn’t fail.” Why does it feel like a letdown?

The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance, he hears inside his head.

It’s Miranda. She’s prompting him.

Crisp and evocative passages such as this are found throughout the book, but not often enough. If Atwood just gave her characters some of the magic found in these lines, it would feel complete.

As it stands, Hag-Seed, an entertaining but ultimately forgettable novel, begs the question: if it offers no more than its source material dressed up for the modern world, why bother with it at all?