Turns out Hag-seed is a curse word. Who would have guessed? Not me. I mean, when you think of books with profane language, who thinks of Shakespeare? But I’m jumping ahead so let’s get back to the beginning.
Where It All Began
In the early 1600s, William Shakespeare wrote a play about Prospero, a man who had inherited the monarchy of Milan but who was lured away on a sea trip where he almost drowned because his brother wanted to rule the land, himself. A shipwrecked Prospero and his 3-year-old daughter find themselves on an almost deserted island and stay there for 12 years before they are rescued and he has an opportunity to take revenge on those who wronged him. The story is called The Tempest and for hundreds of years, it has been read, loved (or hated) and adapted for that time period.
Enter Margaret Atwood, one of the most prolific novelists of our time, and Hogarth Publishers Shakespeare-retelling project and Atwood is commissioned to rewrite and retell The Tempest in a modern setting. Her take? Hag-Seed.
Where We Are Now
Felix is a stage director, and at the height of his career, he is putting on a play, The Tempest, no less. His 3 year old daughter has just died and he needs a win, desperately. But just when he is poised for great success, he is deposed by an assistant who steals his job from under him. Broken, Felix flees for the remote countryside, and lives the life of a hermit, unaccompanied except for the spirit of his lost child for 12 years, Finally, he emerges out of exile to work in a men’s prison, teaching English and arranging Shakespeare plays again. Only time will tell what’ll happen when Felix eventually gets to stage The Tempest again and invite people from his past to be part of his “captive” audience.
What The Title Means
In teaching in a men’s prison, Felix has had to come up with creative ways to get the crass group immersed in the setting and the period of the play. One of his teaching tools is to ask his students to read the play in its entirety and find the ways Shakespearean characters curse each other. One example is Hag-seed, which literally means son of a hag (witch).
What I Thought Of Hag-Seed (The Novel)
Not having read Shakespeare’s original play, I found this story interesting if a bit limited. Despite being inhabitants of the modern world, Atwood’s characters feel like they are frozen in the Shakespearean era and not as fluid as they would be in the 2010’s. Even her present-day references – Youtube videos and tattoos, prisoners convicted with hacking charges and Google references, even those didn’t give the story a truly present-day feel. Overall, her retelling of the story illustrates the themes of the earlier work and sticks, perhaps, too closely to it.
- Felix’ teaching materials helped to expose me to the original work – it was as if Atwood was my English teacher helping me to understand Shakespeare
- the fluidity of Atwood’s take on Ariel and Miranda’s characters where they seem, at times, to be one and the same, both emerging from the mind of her Prospero
- how Atwood characterizes the themes of obsession and betrayal and revenge and prisons – literally and figuratively
- At the end of the class, the imprisoned students have to imagine alternate endings for the original characters. I enjoyed the imaginings that Atwood contrives, giving the reader an opportunity to fantasize along with her characters, even if the ultimate ending wasn’t the most favorable one
I didn’t like:
- the pace of the book was a bit slow at times
- the main characters were hard to identify with
- some situations weren’t resolved as explicitly as I imagined they should’ve been
- the final resolution of the story was hard to accept, what with all those wonderful alternate endings the author proposed
Would I recommend?
Yes. I am loving the Shakespearean retelling project that Hogarth Publishers is producing. Hag-seed brings a slightly obscure piece of literature to the modern day and has the potential to bring new appreciation to the Shakespeare’s work.
Author: Margaret Atwood (known for The Handmaid’s Tale)
I received a free copy of Hag-Seed from Blogging For Books in order to complete this review but this did not at all influence my opinions of the story.
Please click here to check out my review on the Blogging for books site. It’ll boost my approval ratings so I’ll get more awesome books to review in the future.