I seem to be on some kind of Shakespeare kick lately. I’ve read two adaptations of The Tempest in the last month, which certainly is more than I have read in the past few years. The newest one I read was Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood.
****Here be spoilers below. You have been warned.****
I really enjoyed this version. It was a modern setting using Canadian prisoners. Very apropos. The theme of prisons is recurrent throughout The Tempest after all. Felix Phillips is a deposed theatre director whose island exile is a tiny town where he flees after his ousting. He ends up teaching Shakespeare to inmates at the local prison.
First, the next time I teach Shakespeare in person instead of online, I am absolutely stealing Atwood’s approach to it. What fun! If all high school teachers followed this example, many more people would think Shakespeare was fun and not some difficult and deadly dull old fart. Teach them ALL the Elizabethan curse words and encourage them to USE them and they’ll love you forever.
Anyway, the method of teaching aside, the interpretation of the play itself was interesting and highly relevant to modern life. Aren’t we all in a self-imposed exile in some way or another? The overarching plot of Atwood’s novel follows The Tempest closely but there are almost overtones of Hamlet because of the play within a play, which wasn’t quite as blatant in the actual Tempest. The “real life” elements mirror The Tempest while at the same time, Felix is setting up a very deliberate recreation of the play within the prison as well.
Atwood’s characters and their development are as complex as I would expect of her. Felix starts out rage-filled, vengeful, angry. He become reflective, calmer, wise, despite his best efforts to resist. This version of Prospero is unique and believable, and I found him entirely fascinating.
The prisoners all took on the role of Caliban in one way or another. They were all broken, angry men in their own ways. Eventually they came to know more tolerance and the value of patience. What they earn with their patience may not always be what they think it will be but it will always be worth it.
My favorite interpretation is Felix’s daughter. She takes on two personae – the dead child Miranda and the actress Anne-Marie. Anne-Marie takes on the role of Felix’s daughter in many ways. She was cast as Miranda is the first version of The Tempest what was cancelled when he was ousted. Later, she came back as Miranda again in his prison version of the play. Over the course of that play, they grew to develop a real father-daughter relationship, which was healing to both of them in a variety of ways.
There was also the shade of Miranda, Felix’s dead toddler. I loved how she aged (in his head? As a ghost?) as she would have in real life if she had lived. I loved, in a sad way, how Felix couldn’t let go over her and she was a huge part of his life even though she was dead. And I really loved that she actually carried out the role of Ariel in the novel, serving as Felix’s conscience and better half, and that he set her free in the end. It was a beautiful scene and, as a mother myself, if it had been my daughter, I don’t know that I could have done it.
Really, I highly recommend Hag-Seed to all and sundry.
Source: my own copy