Friday, June 30, 2017

Book Review: "Hag-Seed" by Margaret Atwood

Many authors have re-envisioned Shakespeare's plays using contemporary settings and contemporary language, with  varying degrees of success.  What makes Margaret Atwood's "Hag-Seed", a re-envisioning of Shakespeare's "The Tempest", so interesting is that it includes a re-envisioned performance of the play within a reimagined and modernized version of the plot.  It is, essentially, Shakespeare within Shakespeare.

The inner version of the play is a performance put on by prison inmates.  They paraphrase and modernize the language, creatively interpret the costuming, and stage the performance by way of video editing rather than a strictly traditional live performance.  The outer version of the play is the story within which the actual play is produced, a story which parallels the plot of "The Tempest."

Director and actor Felix has had a highly successful run of organizing (and directing, and starring in) an annual Shakespeare festival, staging new versions of many of Shakespeare's plays. That is, until his assistant Tony stages a coup, takes over his position, and gets Felix blacklisted.  Felix, devastated, withdraws from society and the theatre scene.  We learn that Felix had lost his wife in childbirth and then his beloved daughter to an illness only a few years later.  He imagines that his daughter, Miranda, is still with him, growing up and becoming a young woman.  He knows it is only a fantasy, but it keeps him sane to imagine being with her in his self-induced exile.  After a few years he is ready to reenter the theatre world, but only under a pseudonym, and only with actors who have no chance of recognizing him from his former life.  He gets a job teaching English literature to medium security prison inmates (under the pseudonym Mr. Duke), and he uses Shakespearean drama as his main teaching tool.  After several successful years, he discovers that his old nemesis, Tony, along with several other important politicians, plans to visit the prison, with the intention of canceling the funding of the English program.  Felix plots his revenge using a production of The Tempest and the assistance of several technologically savvy inmates. (Atwood cleverly weaves in some themes from Hamlet, a bit of "the play's the thing, wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.")

Admittedly, there are several aspects of the plot which are dubious, at best.  It takes some willing suspension of disbelief to accept that a prison would hire a teacher without a full background check, that important politicians would enter a prison unescorted by armed guards of any kind, or that they would willingly eat food at the prison after being attacked and restrained by the inmates.  However, the characters and the plot are intriguing enough for the reader to skip over minor plot holes such as this.

As a fan of Shakespeare in general, and of "The Tempest" in particular, I really enjoyed the parallels between the outer story and the original material.  I suspect there are some parallels and details that would be missed by a reader with less familiarity with the original play, but the story is interesting enough and well-told enough that it is worth reading even for a reader who has never read "The Tempest."  The plot of the play within the story is explained enough to make many of the parallels clear without any previous familiarity with Shakespeare's work. In addition, the inmates' final analysis of their characters is a fascinating study that is likely to encourage the reader to go back and read (or re-read) Shakespeare's play. 

I enjoyed this novel very much, and would recommend it to Shakespeare fans and non-fans, alike. 

I received this book for review from Blogging for Books. For more information about Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, please see the Penguin Random House website.

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