Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Brilliant Reimagining of Shakespeare's The Tempest: Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Contemporary novelists reimagine Shakespeare's plays in the Hogarth Shakespeare series. I have read Anne Tyler's Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew) and Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time (A Winter's Tale) but have not yet read Howard Jacobson's Shylock is my Name (The Merchant of Venice).

I was particularly eager to read Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood's versions of The Tempest, because I'd read so many glowing reviews, and because I had read and enjoyed Atwood's last book The Heart Goes Last (my first time reading this author, which amazes me).

Hag-Seed is definitely my favorite in the series so far.

I won't concentrate on a plot synopsis since so many other reviewers have already done that. I'd rather address what aspects of the novel particularly impressed me.

I loved Hag-Seed's play within a play structure, so Shakespearean, where all the contemporary characters in the novel correspond to the original play and perform The Tempest while creating a live theater situation where the audience becomes a part of a play based on the Tempest.

I'll try to explain this again.

The protagonist, the brilliant and original artistic director Felix, was about to direct The Tempest when he was disposed from his job as artistic director by self-seeking men. Felix retreats to a primitive cabin in the middle of nowhere, his only companion the memory of his deceased daughter Miranda. After many years he takes a job under a false name and becomes Mr. Duke, literacy teacher in a local prison, teaching inmates Shakespeare through performance of the plays. When Felix learns his old enemies are now Ministers who want to end the prison literacy program he decides the time has come for him to take his revenge. The Ministers come to the prison to see a video of The Tempest performed by the inmates. But Felix and his prisoner actors plot a live theater experience that will bring his enemies under his power.

The intricate structure of the novel knocked my socks off. Additionally, as Felix teaches The Tempest to the prison inmates the reader is also educated about the play's themes and characters. And then at the end of the book the inmates offer reports on what happens to the characters after the events of the play. They offer original insights, such as Prospero's lack of oversight allowing Antonio to usurp him; a questioning of the strength or weakness of goodness; the theme of second chances; and theorizing that Prospero is Caliban's father. I also liked how the minor characters, the prisoners enrolled in Felix's course, have distinct personalities and back stories that relate to the roles they are assigned.

"The last three words in the play are 'set me free'," says Felix." Felix has identified nine prisons within the play, and so we understand how Atwood conceived of Hag-Seed.

Readers of this series don't have to be experts on Shakespeare's plays to enjoy the novels, although an understanding of the plays heightens the enjoyment. If you are rusty on the play, you can skip to the author's synopsis at the end and read it first.

I received a free e-book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Margaret Atwood
Hogarth Shakespeare
Publication Oct. 11, 2016
$25 hard cover

For an interesting follow-up to this book read Shakespeare Changed My Life by Dr. Laura Bates, telling how teaching the Bard to prisoners impacted their lives.

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