Cover of book: Hag-Seed

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is the latest in a series of Shakespeare novels that Hogarth has commissioned in order to get contemporary novelists’ takes on the different stories of the Bard’s plays. We have had a retelling of The Winter’s Tale by Jeanette Winterson, which prickles with guy-on-guy sexual intensity before it goes off the boil, and a version of The Merchant of Venice by Howard Jacobson called Shylock is My Name, in which two formidable Jewish gents, one from the past, one from the present, circle around their fatherhood, their Jewishness and the nature of their respective identities, with a mesmerising power of speech that leaves the details of the plot completely in the shade. A Macbeth is promised from the Scandi crime writer Jo Nesbø and a Lear from that notable celebrator of fathers Edward St Aubyn. 

Margaret Atwood’s chosen vehicle for revamp is The Tempest, Shakespeare’s probable farewell to the stage, the one about the magician Prospero who lures his enemies to the magic island where he is exiled with his daughter, Miranda, and has his contrasted servants – the sprite Ariel, who sings, “Full fathom five thy father lies”, and the monster Caliban, who says, “The isle is full of noises/Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”

Prospero is a great magician and a bit of a director figure who not only says, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” but also invokes “the great globe itself” as if the world of tears and pain and magic could be equated with the Globe Theatre where Shakespeare plied his trade. 

In her acknowledgements Atwood cites various fellow Canadians, including the great critic Northrop Frye as well as the actor Christopher Plummer, whose Prospero she saw on stage. It’s not hard to imagine her director hero played by Plummer – remember him in The Sound of Music? – even though her character gets his surname as homage to Robin Phillips, the expatriate Englishman who invited Maggie Smith to perform her Cleopatra among other roles at Stratford Ontario, the citadel of classical theatre in North America. 

When Atwood’s “Prospero” is ousted as the head of a Shakespeare festival by his administrative assistant, he decides to down his professional theatre books and take up a position teaching drama in a prison. He has a new name, a beard and a record of getting the cons to cotton on to the Bard via Richard III and Julius Caesar when he decides to mount a version of The Tempest . It will not only be a high-and-mighty literary enabler for them, but will also entrap his usurping nemesis – now a politician – as well as the political overlord he sucked up to and another one who is going to do his mentor down. 

The inmates are a representative motley crew. The guy who plays Caliban – and who’s also got a viable-sounding rap song sung by the Hag-Seeds (one of Prospero’s terms of abuse for the thing of darkness he acknowledges his because of his witch mother) – is part Irish, part African-Canadian. The Ariel is an East Indian, lithe and sneaky. The Gonzalo – the sage old duffer of a counsellor, a bit like a wise and sunny Polonius – is known as Bent Pencil and is an accountant gone wrong. 

As an idea for a book Hag-Seed is consistently humane and literate and wise, though the execution leaves something to be desired. Atwood has worked out a neat way of modernising The Tempest while keeping the play itself at the forefront of the action, which is clever and does subtle justice to the self-reflexiveness of Shakespeare’s art in this play about the idea of the play. But everything in practice is a bit laboured and obvious and lacking in swift punches and surprises. 

It’s as if she’s thought up a good plan for a novelistic Tempest but only has a novella’s worth of materials. Hag-Seed is in fact a kind of literary diversion, a game that is enacted, intelligently but without inspiration, a bit like Grandma playing Dungeons & Dragons, having mastered its complexities in order to humour the young. 

None of which stops Hag-Seed from being well written in a bland sort of way, and full of enduring, occasionally haunting and moving Shakespearean echoes. But this book is an example of a big-time writer following a game plan way beyond the boundaries of any perceptible enlivenment. 

It might, in fact, make a nice piece of television, though it remains true – in a way not reducible to the miming of its original – that the Prospero figure here, the director who has wrongly been made to bite the dust, is the only real character in Hag-Seed. We can’t easily tell his cast of prisoners apart, and constantly have to flick back to see which example of Canadian multicultural diversity is being instanced when. The upshot is to make all of the characters seem less like spirits that melt into air than cardboard cutouts in search of a dramatic action. 

Nor do we ever quite plumb the depths of the old director’s feeling for his long dead daughter, Miranda, who is a kind of imaginary friend to him, an abiding presence in his grief. 

The author of The Handmaid’s Tale might have seemed a natural for the play in which a girl, as evanescent in her girlhood as the wind, exclaims, “O brave new world, that hath such creatures in it.” But the cake does not rise; there is no power of invention beyond the initial obvious bright idea. 

The fact that the upshot is a thoughtful, echoic homage to Shakespeare’s long and enduring farewell to his greatness gives it a weird metafictional atmospheric, a fleeting and not quite faint power as criticism that doesn’t save it as fiction.

One problem with the Hogarth Shakespeare series is that though Shakespeare has his structures – and The Tempest has one of his tighter and more gleaming ones – it was Northrop Frye himself, the author of Anatomy of Criticism, who equated structure and myth with a romanticism a long way from Aristotle. Shakespeare does not live for us primarily as a set of stories but as an order of words. And it’s the power of Shakespeare’s words that keeps tugging at Atwood like the murmur of the sea.  QSS

Hogarth, 320pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 15, 2016 as "Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed".

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