Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Hag-seed: The Tempest Retold, by Margaret Atwood. Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016

‘Hag-seed’ is part of the Hogarth Press’s modern retellings of Shakespeare. This one renovates ‘The Tempest’, placing it in a medium-security prison and making some of the songs in the play into rap performances.

Felix, director of a regional theater, is brought to rock bottom when he is fired and his assistant takes over his job. A widower whose child, Miranda, died at age 3, he retreats to the countryside, talking to his ghostly daughter, reading to her, and teaching her chess as, in his mind, she grows up. It’s never explained if Felix is really hallucinatory or if he is consciously bringing Miranda to life. Seeing an ad seeking someone to teach literacy to prisoners in a new program, he invents a new name and past and gets the job. He teaches the inmates to read and examine literature by using them to produce Shakespearean plays. Meanwhile he cyberstalks the men responsible for his losing his position at the theater.

A chance arrives to get revenge when, in planning to defund the inmate program, those men plan to visit the prison and observe his class. He forms an elaborate plan, taking the prisoners into his confidence and setting up a performance in which he plays Prospero. Which is where the mood changes drastically.

The first part is a serious tale of obsession and grief; then it suddenly morphs into a caper movie. Each inmate has some special talent that is necessary for the plan to come together; it’s a sort of ‘A Team’ meets Shakespeare. Even though serious stuff is going on, it’s downright funny. It’s not the climax I was expecting, but I enjoyed it.

The best parts of the book, to me, were where Felix is working with the inmates. The ways they interpret Shakespeare, and the ways Felix makes it understandable and applicable to their own lives, are fascinating and made me wonder if Atwood has worked with inmates. Of course it’s made clear that these are a special group of inmates, so I assume that in real life there might not be such harmony and agreeableness.

An unusual and intense book.

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1 comment:

  1. I like Atwood's writing but find I have to set aside time for it. I will definitely get around to this one at some point. Thanks for the review.