First Look: Margaret Atwood’s New Book, Hag-Seed
The Hogarth Shakespeare Project began in October of last year, and since then, three of the Bard’s classics—The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, and The Winter’s Tale—have been repackaged into modern novels by well-known authors. The project’s fourth installment is Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed (October 11), a modern (and very Canadian) adaptation of The Tempest, and comes at the tail end of a hectic year wherein the 76-year-old has already written a graphic novel and had two of her books picked up for major television productions.
Hag-Seed centers on Felix Phillips, who, like his Shakespearean alter-ego Prospero, lives in exile. Ousted from his position as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, Felix resides alone in a hillside shack, haunted by memories of his daughter Miranda, who died in infancy. To ease his loneliness, he takes a position teaching theatre at a local prison, where he plots to stage a Tempest that will ensnare his enemies and restore him to his rightful glory.
Atwood has written a fascinating piece in The Guardian explaining her adaptation of The Tempest—her “first choice, by miles.” Here’s how she decided on her modern setting:
The first thing I did when starting this project was to reread the play. Then I read it again. Then I got my hands on all the films of it that I could find, and watched them. Then I read the play again.
Then came the usual episodes of panic and chaos: why had I foolishly agreed to write a book in this series? Why had I chosen The Tempest? Really it was impossible! What was the modern-day equivalent of a magician marooned on an island for 12 years with a now adolescent daughter? You couldn’t write that straight: all the islands are known, there are satellites now, they would have been rescued by a helicopter in no time flat. And what about the flying air spirit? And the Caliban figure?
Calm, calm, I told myself. I read the play again, this time backwards. The last three words Prospero says are “Set me free.” But free from what? In what has he been imprisoned?
I started counting up the prisons and imprisonments in the book. There are a lot of them. In fact, every one of the characters is constrained at some point in the play. This was suggestive. The play is about illusions: magic is the only weapon Prospero has. And it is about vengeance versus mercy, as in so many of Shakespeare’s plays. But it’s also about prisons. So I decided to set my novel in a prison.
Early reviews of Hag-Seed are rave. The Scotsman calls it “an absolute triumph,” and a starred review from Publishers Weekly boasts that “Atwood’s canny remix offers multiple pleasures: seeing the inmates’ takes on their characters, watching Felix make use of the limited resources the prison affords (legal and less so), and marveling at the ways she changes, updates, and parallels the play’s magic, grief, vengeance, and showmanship.”
Atwood is unquestionably one of the most celebrated authors of our time. In illuminating talks, she speaks on subjects from literature to social activism, the creative process to technology and art—all with her signature wit and keen sense of past, present, and future.
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