Four hundred years after his death, William Shakespeare’s work remains the pinnacle of English prose. It’s a fascinating anomaly—a man who paid the bills by writing to delight the masses is now beloved by the academic elite. But Shakespeare also boasts an unwavering, pop culture appeal, and his iconic characters are ripe for reinterpretation. With Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood reimagines Shakespeare’s The Tempest in a novel that blurs the lines between genius and madness.
The book follows Felix Phillips, an artistic director who never anticipated a coup. While working for the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, he focused on the art and his grief for his lost daughter rather than the power dynamics, particularly the ambitions of his assistant Tony Price. On the verge of staging The Tempest, Felix is relieved of his position by the Board—a blow that amounts to Tony’s betrayal in Felix’s eyes.
After retreating to a shack in the woods, Felix plots his revenge. He takes a job as the instructor of a prison literacy course, turning it into a Shakespeare workshop that produces an annual play. Several years after leaving Makeshiweg, he’s told that Tony and his accomplice, Sal O’Nally, will be visiting the prison in their new roles as Minister of Justice and Minister of Heritage. Felix spots his chance for revenge and begins crafting a unique version of The Tempest.
The play-within-a-novel-inspired-by-a-play format could easily get mired in its competing narratives and characterizations, but Atwood skillfully navigates the layers using the inmates’ study of Shakespeare as a means to explore the novel’s dynamics. Felix is positioned as Hag-Seed’s Prospero, a ringleader driven by a desire to reclaim what is rightfully his, but there’s something of the treacherous Caliban in him as well. As the inmates debate whether Prospero actually sees spirits, Felix believes himself to be interacting with the ghost of his daughter. Is it truly a ghost, or is Felix slowly losing his mind? Combined with his rage-fueled quest for vengeance, the novel twists and turns into a dark gamble.
Atwood’s recasting of each character from The Tempest is subtle, only becoming clear in Hag-Seed’s final pages. Even bit characters, like the Auspicious Star (here represented by administrator Estelle) who provides fortune and luck when needed, are worked into the narrative.
Just as with a play, a certain willingness to suspend disbelief is required to enjoy this novel. With the bulk of the action taking place in a prison, the constant good fortune Felix possesses in acquiring outside materials and getting privacy is a stretch. But it’s one that works. By the time the story reaches its vengeful climax, the reader is equally excited and nervous to see what Felix has spent the years formulating. When he’s gotten what he desires, the question that lingers is the same as in The Tempest: How do we escape the prisons we build ourselves?
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.