Photo by Jean Malek

Photo by Jean Malek

Hag-Seed (Hogarth Shakespeare)
Margaret Atwood
Release Date:  October 11, 2016
ISBN 978-0-8041-4129-1

In October of 2015, Hogarth, an imprint of the publishing giant Penguin Random House, launched a literary series where Shakespeare’s works would be “retold by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today.” Five out of a planned eight novels in the series have been published thus far, including Hag-Seed, a retelling of Shakespeare’s late period romance, The Tempest, by acclaimed author Margaret Atwood.

Not familiar with The Tempest, or haven’t read it since your college days?  No worries! While those who are familiar with the Bard’s play may have deeper or more immediate insight into what unfolds in Ms. Atwood’s story, enjoyment can be had at many levels, and any perceived hurdles facing a retelling of such a venerated play are deftly cleared by the author’s inspired effort.

Hag-Seed recounts the tale of Felix Phillips, aging thespian and idiosyncratic artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. Felix had presided over the Festival for many years, staging Shakespearean works in somewhat unconventional – he would say “inspired” – ways (Pericles with space ships and extraterrestrials? The Winter’s Tale with vampires?)in an effort to make the Makeshiweg Festival “the standard against which all other lesser theatre festivals would be measured.” However, just before launching what he felt would be his greatest production to date – The Tempest – his contract is suddenly and unceremoniously terminated by the Festival’s Board of Directors.

Convinced that he has been ousted by his younger and rabidly ambitious associate artist director (who is named interim A.D.), Felix retreats from the public eye and begins laying plans for revenge. After a lengthy self-imposed exile, he finds the perfect vehicle – teaching a theater course at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute. Under the guise of the Literacy Through Literature government initiative, he takes the alias of a retired school teacher and establishes the Fletcher Correctional Players, a group of inmates who annually study, produce and perform a Shakespearean play.  The first year they tackle Julius Caesar, the following year Richard III, and Macbeth the year after that. Finally, feeling that his cover is secure and his loyalties at the prison established, Felix is ready to spring his plan for revenge against his former assistant (who is now a government official) and others who were part of his abrupt downfall. The play he chooses to enact his revenge? The Tempest.

In Felix Phillips, Ms. Atwood has created a very relatable hero – someone who believes he has been wronged at a vulnerable time in his life (having lost his young wife during childbirth, and then his daughter three years later, to illness, shortly before the sacking), and willing to bide his time while holding his bitterness close to his chest.

Yet like many of Shakespeare’s heroes, Felix is a complex character who defies simplification. He is vain, bombastic and peevish, but he does champion the theatre arts with heartfelt aplomb. Although he is in a position to take advantage of others, especially doting women, he never crosses that line even though he is aware it exists. Sometimes the inmates’ reactions to his assigned plays are counter to his own interpretation, but rather than countering or belittling them, he acknowledges that their ideas and perceptions have merit. When he finally is in a position to enact his revenge, he does not trick the inmates into assisting him but asks for their help.

But most inspiring of all is his work with the inmates – his students. These men produce every aspect of the play, from acting to designing and building the sets, conceiving and working on the costumes and props, and composing any music alluded to in the text, all while learning about language and motivation and working as a team. Felix ensures they have what they need to learn, providing them with a shortened text of the play, a summary of the plot, a set of notes and a crib sheet of archaic words. He outlines the themes of the play, and leads them in in-depth discussions about the main characters and their motivations, with debates encouraged. He allows parts to be rewritten in the inmates’ own words in order to make them more “contemporary”, as long as the plot remains untouched. At the end of the course, each “team” is tasked with writing an essay on what happens to their character after the actions of the play have concluded.

One of the most imaginative exercises Felix undertakes is to limit the curse words allowed in the class:

The students were allowed to choose a list of swear words, but only from the play itself. They liked that feature; also it ensured that they read the text very thoroughly. Then he set up a competition: points off for using the wrong swear words. You could only say “The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon” if the play was Macbeth. Transgressors lost points. At the end there was a valuable reward consisting of cigarettes, which Felix smuggled in. That aspect was very popular.

Simply put, Felix does more than use these inmates as a means to an end – he truly teaches them, and they become better for it.

Does Felix eventually conclude that revenge pales in the face of the positive influence his class has on his students? No. Nothing that trite, nothing that lofty. But the benefit is there, and it is genuine, and he is truly proud of his students and what they accomplish. For Felix, the revenge remains front and center of the entire process, but he does not let it circumvent the power of theater on the lives of those who partake of it.

And I haven’t even touched on the specter of Felix’s deceased daughter, the lovely Miranda, whose presence eases the loneliness of his hermetic life. Or the way that the inmates – and their isolated world – adds a raw element to the text that is uniquely compelling. Nor have I touched upon the parallels between Hag-Seed and the classic work that spawned it. But that’s the way of things, isn’t it? When something is this well written, and takes as its inspiration a work as great as Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the more you look, the more you see.

And Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is well worth the look, whether you are a fan of the Bard of Stratford or not.

~ Sharon Browning

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