If you’re a fan of Margaret Atwood’s retelling,of The OdysseyThe Penelopiad, you’ve probably already got a copy of Hag-Seed on your stack.

Knopf - PRH, 2016

Knopf – PRH, 2016

Ditto if you’re following the Hogarth Shakespeare retellings. Already published this year are Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice), Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew) and forthcoming are volumes by Tracey Chevalier (on Othello), Gillian Flynn (on Hamlet), Jo Nesbo (on Macbeth) and Edward St. Aubym (on King Lear).

I’m more a fan of Margaret Atwood’s style in general. So whether she signs up for an epic poem or a 17-century play, I’m there.

A major motivation for me is her sense of humour, and this is prominent in Hag-Seed too. Even the dark scenes (especially the dark scenes?) are both tragic and comic.

The reader feels the pang of it all, in difficult scenes, but there is also something disturbingly delightful about the details and the delivery.

Here we have a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with an artistic director, ousted from his position at the Makeshiweg theatre by an ambitious underling, who is now responsible for staging dramatics in a prison: “doing Shakespeare in the clink”.

Readers need not be familiar with The Tempest to appreciate Hag-Seed; there is a summary at the end of novel (placed to avoid spoilers) and throughout the novel there are discussions amongst the characters (actors/prisoners/enchanters) which help to crystallize the play’s key elements.

After Felix has been publically denounced, he adopts Duke as his surname and undertakes the production of “The Tempest” which he should have rightfully produced as artistic director.

Paradoxically, although his actors are imprisoned, in some ways Felix is freer, having been released from his position. He can dress Prospero in a robe made from pieces of stuffed animals’ heads and parts without anyone questioning his artistic vision.

It does take some adjustment, this prison mindset, from a technical perspective, however. (He learns, for instance, how to use a heat sealer, so that he can insert contraband cigarettes into bags of potato chips and reseal so they are undetected.)

He is warned by other prison personnel that the men are “real people, not ciphers or experimental mice or playthings.”

But, in fact, they are playthings. Literally. There is not just black and white in Shakespeare (Atwood), but all shades of grey.

For although Felix has some unexpected freedoms in his artistic decision-making, and he is free to come and go from the correctional facility unlike its inmates, he is a prisoner too. “My island domain. My place of exile. My penance.” (This is not the first time Margaret Atwood’s fiction has taken her behind bars: Alias Grace and The Heart Goes Last also indulge her fascination.)

Felix has not recovered from the death of his daughter, Miranda. She died when she was three years old, but in Felix’s mind, she shares his home and his being. In some ways, perhaps her ghost is a prisoner, but one could also say that she (her lingering presence) has kept Felix imprisoned in grief too.

“Prospero is not crazy. Ariel exists. People other than Prospero see him and hear him. The enchantments are real. Hold on to that. Trust the play.
But is the play trustworthy?”

The enchantment is real in Margaret Atwood’s hands and the questions as pressing as they were in the original story. Hag-Seed is not about answering questions, rather about posing them.

In the process, one must find pleasure where one can, whether in contraband substances or in wordplay, and readers (and players) do.

“His next move was important to his method: he’d limit the curse words permitted in the class. The students were allowed to choose a list of swear words, but only from the play itself. They liked that feature; also it ensured that they read the text very thoroughly. Then he’d set up a competition: points off for using the wrong swear words. You could only say ‘The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon’ if the play was Macbeth. Transgressors lost points. At the end there was a valuable reward consisting of cigarettes, which Felix smuggled in. That aspect was very popular.”

For those who know Shakespeare intimately, there would be an extra layer of enjoyment in this kind of game; but even for those who don’t, the idea of the regimented and literary cursing is good fun.

Just as there is no clean interpretation of even a single line in Shakespeare, readers can debate a single line of Hag-Seed just as vociferously.

And in case readers are not sure how to question such enchantments, Margaret Atwood incorporates the process in the narrative. Shakespeare wrote a play-within-a-play; Hag-Seed offers readers a play-within-a-play-within-a-novel.

Felix/Duke/Prospero makes a running start at the issues, and he frequently circles around them until he has made the readers as dizzy as he has made himself (dizzy enough to see his sleeping/dead daughter).

“DREAMS, he should have written on his whiteboard. It’s surely a man keynote. My spirits as in a dream are all bound up. How many people in the play fall asleep suddenly or talk about dreaming? We are such stuff as dreams are made of. But what are dreams made of? Rounded with a sleep. Rounded. It chimes so exactly with the great globe itself. Did Shakespeare always know what he was doing, or was he sleepwalking part of the time? In the flow? Writing in a trance? Enacting an enchantment he himself was under? Is Ariel a muse figure? Felix can picture a whole different Tempest, one in which…”

This might be overwhelming in another author’s hands. But here we have Margaret Atwood to pull us back into an enchantment we can access as easily as an HBO script. The passage continues in matter-of-fact prose, nothing 17th-century about it.

“Shut up, he tells himself. Don’t add anything more to the mix. The guys have got their hands full as it is.”

Maybe she did have her hands full. It can’t be easy: this assignment to rewrite the tales of a master. But here death can be sleep, a magician’s staff can be a fox-head cane, and the director deserves a filth-as-thou-art, wicked, freckled, malignant, poxy standing O.