Published in 2016, Hag-Seed was written as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. Several authors were commissioned to write modern adaptations of classic Shakespeare plays, and Atwood had chosen The Tempest, featuring Prospero, the enigmatic magician-sorcerer who causes a shipwreck of his adversaries, in order to begin a plot to regain his rightful throne.
In this retelling, Prospero has transformed into a middle-aged theatre director, Felix Phillips, who finds himself ousted by his cunning and devious protege. What transpires is a mirroring of Shakespeare’s original tale, with Felix plotting to regain his position at the Makeshiweg theatre. Hag-Seed is equal parts comedy and tragedy, though quite different from what those two genres meant back in Shakespeare’s time. This review will talk about the plot, the characters, and Atwood’s prose. The thesis of this review will be that while the book is entertaining for its length, it falls short of what we’ve come to expect from Atwood in terms of literary merit. Spoilers will be at a minimum.
Felix Philips was at the top of his game. He had a nice and comfortable position as head director of the Makeshiweg theatre, a small local venue that put on various plays throughout the year. His world is shattered when his more ambitious assistant, Tony, overthrows him by getting the board of directors to vote him out. Exiled from the world in which he was king and country, Felix finds employment as the theatre director/teacher at Fletchers Correctional Facility, initiating a Literacy through Literature program for the inmates. Back on the outside, his enemies rise through the political ranks, becoming ministers within the government, and inevitably the auspicious star brings them to Felix, giving our hero a chance for revenge.
As far as the interpretation goes it is indeed a clever remodeling of The Tempest. The primary players are present and the more impractical ones have been replaced or reinterpreted as convenience dictated. Though we know how it ends, readers are sure to be curious enough to follow the story all the way through, because “how” and “why” will always be more important than “what”. Felix must use his wits and enlist the help of several inmates in order to exact his revenge.
Felix is an interesting character, at least for the first quarter of the story. He is full of life and love for the art of theatre, and he suffers from a dual loss of wife and daughter to unfortunate circumstances. However, somewhere past the midway point his character begins to dull. His yearning for his daughter becomes a prop for ineffective sulking, and the only thing that ever engages him is executing his revenge scheme. This is a fault of the plot, because while the premise is interesting, the actual unfolding of events is monotonous, but this weakness of plot is what makes Felix boring, because the plot never gives him the chance to grow, improvise, or genuinely waver. Things just happen, and Felix carries on.
One of the more interesting characters is Anne-Marie, who plays Miranda in Felix’s prison play. Her character is vivid despite her being a plain and normal character. It is admittedly a bit odd that I feel the need to point out a normal female character who contributes to the plot without being a romantic interest or sexual object.
The prison inmates provide much of the humour in the novel. Though there is nothing really funny about their situation, they are down-to-earth and they make the best of it, resulting in a supporting cast of ex-convicts who have a dry sense of humour.
The prose is serviceable for the most part, though the deficiencies in plot pervade here as well. Because the plot is a series of events happening one after another, the narrative at times felt like watching grass grow. Something’s happening, but it ain’t much.
Despite that, Atwood’s narrative remains sharp with that characteristic touch of wry honesty. Her narrative is clean and simple. It does what it needs to and doesn’t do it superfluously or with needless vulgarity. Nor does it try to be overly witty.
Two things that I wish there were more of were dialogue and descriptions. Dialogue would’ve made the characters more three dimensional, especially Felix. As is he spends too much time alone and in his thoughts. I was also surprised by the lack of descriptions. The prison could’ve expanded upon the themes of the book, and since the plot involves putting up a play within the prison, the decorations and sets could’ve transformed it into a more interesting and colourful world.
Hag-Seed is a brief read. I would recommend it as a fun little diversion that can be tucked spontaneously into your reading list. You won’t be missing much, however, if you pass over this one. Atwood has other stories that can hold your attention better, such as Oryx and Crake and The Blind Assassin. Hag-Seed will definitely appeal to fans of Shakespeare and Atwood fanatics. A fun read, though one cannot shake off the feeling that it is lacking.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.