Hag-Seed, The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood is a novel about Revenge, using Shakespeare’s The Tempest as the vehicle. For some reason I am reminded of John Cheever’s Falconer because of the jail setting, also the beauty of the writing. Atwood has used The Tempest as the model for her novel. Her characters are living the nightmare that is the story of the play. One leader is ousted by another and ends up in isolation and then my chance they are reunited in the ousted man’s territory.
We all know the story of The Tempest. In Atwood’s story, Felix, is the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival until he is ousted by his assistant Tony. Felix has also had a personal tragedy. He has lost his wife in the childbirth of his daughter, Miranda, who in turn died of meningitis at an early age. He imagines Miranda is still with him. He disappears into the wilderness and finds an isolated house in the woods. He eventually gets a job as an English teacher in the Fletcher Correctional Facility and creates a troupe of players. After more than a dozen years of exile, Felix, now Mr. Duke, discovers his old enemies and ousters are to come to the prison, in the their new roles as government officials. Felix, Mr. Duke, plans his revenge. He will put on The Tempest, the play he was going to put on when he was ousted from the Festival.
There are three stories: The Tempest, Felix and his ghosts, and the play put on by the inmates. The most fun part is the play put on by the inmates. Felix puts them in teams and they have to determine the form of production and use their own experiences in the production. Getting them past Ariel the fairy and Caliban the beast are easily enough done and brilliantly. He brings in an actress to play Miranda. The revenge part is hilarious and moving as Felix weaves his magic, with some help from drugs, on his enemies. The interpretation parts of his directing are brilliant examples very worthy of any English class, which makes this a wonderful companion read when teaching this play. I gained such new insight from Atwood’s interpretations and teachings. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the lessons was how Felix demanded of the actors that they project what would happen next, after the play has ended to each of the characters. As always the best lesson when a story is done is to ask, what next?
Felix uses this production to exact revenge upon his enemies and to finally exorcise the ghost of his daughter, Miranda. Felix speaks of nine prisons in the play and as he helps the inmates negotiate these prisons he, too, is finding freedom from his own shackles.
Reading this novel based on the famous swan song play of the Bard is such a delight. I love The Tempest and her treatment of it with such reverence is magnificent. I hope this novel is on this year’s Man Booker List, it is most worthy.