Review of Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood


As I have spent the past couple of years writing and re-writing Miranda’s Tempest, my follow-up to Shakespeare’s The Tempest after teaching it as part of the GCSE syllabus, I was intrigued to find out how such a respected author would tackle this one.

The Tempest is set on a remote island full of strange noises and creatures. Here, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, plots to restore the fortunes of his daughter Miranda by using magic and illusion — starting with a storm that will bring Antonio, his treacherous brother, to him. All Prospero, the great sorcerer, needs to do is watch as the action he has set in train unfolds.

In Margaret Atwood’s ‘novel take’ on Shakespeare’s original, theatre director Felix has been unceremoniously ousted from his role as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival. When he lands a job teaching theatre in a prison, the possibility of revenge presents itself – and his cast find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever.

This book starts just as Felix is retreating, licking his wounds after having been ejected from this prestigious post of Artistic Director. What will he do next? In third person viewpoint, we follow Felix as he struggles to come to terms with this latest body blow in a life punctuated by tragedy. As a response, or perhaps even a retreat from his grief, Felix has thrown himself into his work by creating increasingly edgy and challenging productions. While his ever-ready assistant Tony, is all too willing to attend the boring meetings and charity functions that come with his post in his stead.

This apparently straightforward tale is a joy to read – particularly if you have a detailed knowledge of The Tempest. During the parallel retelling, there are all sorts of echoes and nods to the original text which I very much appreciated – all the more because Atwood leaves it to us to play that particular game. For the usurping brother Antonio, who deposes and exiles Prospero, read Tony the double-crossing assistant for instance. It takes twelve years for Felix to regroup, before putting on this keynote play and decide to make a move against his enemies, just as Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, languish on the enchanted island for twelve years before the tempest strikes, bringing Prospero’s enemies to him… It goes on throughout the book and is great fun to spot.

I very much liked the prison setting and the fact that Felix decides to give the prisoners an annual project of learning about a Shakespearean play, rehearsing and preparing it and then filming it. Atwood’s story very neatly reflects all sorts of themes that run through The Tempest such as the idea of imprisonment, revenge and the healing power of forgiveness – and what happens when there isn’t sufficient forgiveness. I’m aware I have talked at some length about the similarities between the Shakespeare play and Felix’s journey after losing his career – what this isn’t is some dry-as-dust, semi-academic treatise on a classic play by some long-dead playwright. This is a vibrant, interesting story about a sympathetic protagonist down on his luck and who gradually manages to retrieve his sense of self-worth and a place in society after years of privation.

You don’t need to know a thing about The Tempest in order to enjoy the story, though there are all sorts of enjoyable little extras if you do. Atwood is known for her rather grim endings – so I was rather dreading the end as I’d grown unexpectedly fond of Felix, which was a surprise as I loathe Prospero in The Tempest. However, Atwood very satisfactorily brings his story to an appropriate conclusion, after my favourite part of the book – when each prisoner playing the main part had to give a report on what he thinks happens to his character after the play ends. I thought their ideas were brilliant and quirky – but then this is Atwood. So of course it’s brilliant and quirky.

I shall remember this book with great affection for a long time to come. Very highly recommended.

22 responses »

  1. So happy that you loved this! I actually have a copy, I believe I won it somewhere, but I’ve been so busy I haven’t been able to get to it. I’ll definitely try to squeeze it in at some point!

  2. I keep seeing this one. Didn’t realize toe connection to The Tempest. Something I read way back when. Might be a good fit for me. You’ve definitely got me curious. Thanks for the glowing review.

  3. This sounds like a clever retelling of The Tempest – so much so that, apart from where you pointed out the parallels, it was difficult to tell how it was a retelling. (If that makes any sense…?) Did any particular character take the place of Miranda? You don’t have to say who; I’m just curious, since you made no mention of it in the review.

    While we’re talking about Margaret Atwood, have you read The Handmaid’s Tale? That’s one I’ve been meaning to get to for a while.

    • Yes… I read it a long time ago and was really shocked. The Handmaid’s Tale is a gripping read – but very gritty.

      Felix had a daughter called Miranda after the character in the play. And there’s a reason I don’t make much mention of her in the review, but as I’m allergic to spoilers I didn’t want to give that bit away.

      • I heard her read in person once. She is a terrible speaker and has NO stage presence; plus, she read from her work-in-progress, a non-fiction book titled ON BOXING. B o r i n g!!!

      • Yes… I can imagine her doing that. I’m not sure I would like her all that much. She is certainly quite a spiky personality – I’ve heard her interviewed on Radio 4 several times and she does seem to enjoy wrong-footing her interviewers. But the fact that she’s a great writer is undeniable.

  4. That sounds like an interesting read. Though, I guess, I should read the Tempest first. Having grew up in non-English speaking culture, I didn’t have much Shakespear at school. In high school, there was a toss between Hamlet and Macbeth (we read the latter), and at the university I got to read King Lear. We’ve read some of his sonnets too.
    I know most of the storylines of his works, but that’s nowhere near knowing the works themselves. I guess I should make it a goal to read some more of his plays.

    • I would recommend that you go and see his plays first – so long as you know the story. Shakespeare should be performed:). But going back to The Hag-Seed, Atwood makes sure that no reader is left adrift, so you really don’t need to mug up in advance…

      • I haven’t seen a single play of his – only read some. And seeing as I’m a second language speaker, I prefer the written word I can try to decipher instead of guessing game of “what did I just hear?” Not that I have a problem with spoken English in general, but it’s Shakespeare… 😉

      • Oh, you should go and see his work on a stage. There is a magic about it. Even if you don’t understand every single word, the sense sings out through the cadences and poetry in the rhythms and sounds…

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