I was a bit apprehensive initially when my copy of Hag-Seed arrived. An initial Google search about the book revealed that Hag-Seed is Atwood’s attempt to retell the Shakespeare classic of The Tempest. Even though I have read abridged versions of The Tempest, I had only a general outline of the plot in my mind and lacked a deeper knowledge of its themes and motifs. But this apprehension soon turned out to be unfounded as the book can even be enjoyed by the Shakespeare novices.
The Tempest tells the story of Prospero, the ousted Duke of Milan, who stages a play in a remote island with the help of spirits commanded by Ariel to extract vengeance on his brother Antonio and Alonso (King of Naples) for overthrowing him. Knowing that his enemies’ ships are close to the island to which he had been exiled for the past 12 years along with his daughter Miranda, Prospero creates a tempest to lure them to the island to take revenge.
Atwood’s Prospero is Felix Phillips, the Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival who was brutally ousted from his position by his trusted assistant Tony with the help of Minister Sal O’Nally. This tragedy strikes when he was busy preparing for his version of The Tempest to showcase at the Makeshiweg Festival. After the loss of his beloved daughter Miranda, staging of The Tempest on a grand scale was his way of healing inside and moving on. Losing his position as the director, Felix retreats to a shack in the country side to lick his wounds in private. To avoid prying eyes, he also changes his name to Mr. Duke. Lacking a purpose in life, he decides to put an end to his hermit-like existence and applies for a teaching job at the Fletcher Correctional Institute. Here, he teaches Shakespearean plays to prison inmates who reenact the play based on their interpretation of the classic. When Felix gets to know that his enemies are visiting Fletcher Correctional, he decides to stage a tempest of his own with the help of the prison inmates to extract retribution for their acts.
Being an Atwood fan, I have read most of her works which generally showcases female protagonists. Hag-Seed differs from all of them by donning a male protagonist instead. This in no way has affected the appeal of the novel as Felix Phillips can hold his own in front of any other Atwood protagonist. He is realistic and flawed, staggers under his misfortunes and is very close to losing his mind. However, Atwood has managed to make him appealing to the readers and has us rooting for his success. The language of this novel is also completely different from other Atwood books. It has a copious amount of Shakespearean lines thrown in by Felix in his conversations. A whole new approach to Shakespeare has been done by retelling the plight of the central characters in The Tempest through rap songs and rap language. To give a gist of it, Antonio, the wicked king, is referred in the book as Evil Bro Antonio. Ingenious and hilarious!!
The most enjoyable part of the novel is the insight into the characters of The Tempest given in the pretext of classes for inmates. Through the interpretation of The Tempest, the author exposes us to the underlying themes and shades of the various characters. The imagination of the post-play lives of the characters also offers a delightful read. The modern day interpretation of Ariel as a holographic projection of the weather systems is really inventive. The future of Caliban as a popular musician with a band of his own is ingenious. The heart rending part of the story is Felix’s Miranda, who dies at a young age of three but is always present in Felix’s memories. As the novel progresses, the thin line between Felix’s Miranda and Ariel get blurred. After the staging of The Tempest, Felix releases his Miranda just as Prospero releases his Ariel. With this action Felix finds redemption from the tragedies of his past.
Even though the immortal plays of Shakespeare has been retold and adapted many a times, when the legend of contemporary fiction undertakes this humongous task, we all know that it will be no ordinary take. Atwood, once again, delivers to the expectations of her fans with an inspired modern rendition of the age old classic. The Tempest is a tale of magic, illusions, vengeance, redemption and repentance. Atwood successfully captures all the elements of the play in this new novel while sticking close to the original plot. This is definitely a must-read for all Atwood fans and Shakespeare enthusiasts.
“What to do with such a sorrow? It was like an enormous black cloud boiling up over the horizon. No: it was like a blizzard. No: it was like nothing he could put into language. He couldn’t face it head-on. He had to transform it, or at the very least enclose it.”
Favourite Character: Miranda
Felix’s daughter who passed away at the young age of three due to chronic meningitis. Throughout the novel, she stays with Felix in his imagination growing up as the time passes. Freeing Miranda from his imagination is Felix’s final act of redemption.
I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange of an honest review and this does not influence my opinion about the book.