Imagine a man, a passionate and powerful man, who is thrown off his position of power and goes into exile, only many years later learns he has the opportunity to seek revenge on the men who pushed him into exile. Except in this Shakespearean tale, we are not set on a deserted island but in present-day Canada, and the sorcerer Prospero is now Felix, artistic director of an Ontario theater festival.
Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest has become Hag-Seed, the fourth in the series from the publishing company Hogarth, who is taking Shakespeare’s eight most famous plays and handing them over to some of the better contemporary authors. Even so, I’ll admit that I was cautious when I began this book. I often find myself rolling my eyes when I hear of a classic book being updated, revisited, or zombiefied in some way. But the mix of Atwood and Shakespeare drew me in, and boy am I glad that it did.
Our Prospero is Felix, and our traitorous Antonio is Tony, Felix’s former assistant who ousts him on the eve of the opening of Felix’s theatrical masterpiece, his own version of The Tempest. Felix exiles himself to a small cottage in the countryside, haunted by the spirit and memories of his dead daughter. In order to obtain some income, he takes a job as a theater teacher to felons at a nearby prison under an assumed name. Twelve years later, Felix learns that Tony and the other men who ousted him are coming to visit his prison program. Felix decides to put on his masterpiece, his Tempest that was stolen from him so many years ago, using his prison students as a means for revenge against his enemies.
You do not need to know the plot of The Tempest in order to read this book, but I believe it adds a layer of mystery and intrigue to Atwood’s writing and characters. Who will be the contemporary version of the magical sprite Ariel, or the murderous Caliban, also known as the titular “Hag-Seed?” Even the person who turns out to be Miranda is not who you would think. But these characters are not just shadows of their inspirations. They thrive under Atwood’s writing, carefully constructed and full of personality.
Unfortunately, this dedication to the characters does not occur when Atwood writes the felons. These men do not have much in personality or character. Though we are given some backstory, they really just come across as props to move the story along. Though considering the course material, maybe this was Atwood’s intention.
This book will make you laugh, it will make you cry, and you will feel both Felix’s and Atwood’s passion in their work. Her writing captures you just like Felix’s spectacular plays would capture you. Even if you don’t read Shakespeare, this book will draw you into to the magical world of theater and writing. Allow yourself to be drawn in. You won’t regret it. 5 out of 7 lightning scars. ⚡️⚡️⚡️⚡️⚡️ * * * * * *
Meet Elizabeth DeKok: Liz is an almost-author from Harrisburg, PA. She is an avid reader who spent many of her formative years climbing up trees and ruining her eyesight by reading in the dark after her bedtime. When not thinking about the existential void she works as a teacher aid in a kindergarten classroom. She also spends way too much time baking cookies and pies. Her favorite genres are short fiction and personal essays.