Hag-Seed is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which eight authors were invited to retell a Shakespeare play in a format and style of their choosing. This is the second of this series that I’ve read, having loved Tracy Chevalier’s retelling of Othello when I read it last year (my review can be found here).
Not being all that familiar with The Tempest, I was pleased to see that a brief synopsis of the play was included within Hag-Seed, and I did read that first so that I wasn’t going into this novel completely blind. I’m glad I did, because not only did it help with my understanding of Hag-Seed, but it also let me appreciate how clever Atwood has been in her retelling of this play. This does mean that it’s difficult to say whether Hag-Seed would work without any prior knowledge, however, but I would recommend getting acquainted with the play beforehand – even if it’s just through the summary on Wikipedia – as I think that some of the story might seem a little strange without any context, although that is just my opinion.
At the opening of the novel, Felix is working as the Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival and is known for his bold and (occasionally) outrageous productions. He has been through some personal turmoil having lost both his wife and daughter, and it comes as shock when Tony, his right-hand man, delivers the news that he has been fired. Wanting revenge, but not knowing how to obtain it, Felix goes into a self-imposed exile, biding his time as Tony and his cronies move onto bigger and better things, even taking the credit for some of Felix’s initiatives.
During his exile, Felix takes up a position at Fletcher Correctional Facility, leading a literacy program with the inmates. Here, he teaches one Shakespeare play a year, and has the prisoners study and discuss the themes, characters, plot etc. before modernising the script and re-enacting the play. It’s through this program that Felix finally gets his chance for vengeance, having waited patiently for 12 years, as Tony, now in politics, is going to visit Fletcher in order to assess the worthiness of the program. And there’s only one option for the play that year, and Felix intends to make his Tempest bigger and better than ever…
I really enjoyed Hag-Seed, and I thought that it was a clever adaptation of the play, with much of Felix’s narrative echoing, albeit in a modernised setting, that of Prospero in Shakespeare’s play. His betrayal, his exile, and his opportunity for revenge can all be linked to the play, as can the way in which he goes about obtaining his revenge. The narrative also makes sense in its own right, however, and I understood Felix’s motivations and actions even without the context of the play – even if some of it was a little unusual, it could be passed off as Felix being a little eccentric.
I also enjoyed that The Tempest also appears in the novel as the play being performed by the inmates of Fletcher. I felt that this helped me to get a deeper understanding of the play and its characters, as Felix explains it to the prisoners taking part in the program. Following each production, Felix always asks the prisoners to imagine what comes next for each of the characters in the play. I found this to be an interesting idea, particularly as they imagine the dastardly deeds that Antonio might get up to in order to restore his status, and I did wonder if this meant that Felix’s revenge might be short-lived. This isn’t explored in the novel, but I found this element to be extremely thought-provoking.
With great characters and plenty of revenge, Hag-Seed is a wonderful adaptation of The Tempest, and one that I recommend to readers who like the play, or who would like to become more familiar with it.
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐