A monster they understand

This is a guest post by my friend Anne Graue. She was invited to write a review of Hag-Seed by the Margaret Atwood Society. Of course she said yes! She retains the rights to her review, so it is reposted below, with her permission.

Anne is a wonderful poet, as well. She has her first chapbook coming out in the fall, writes reviews for a ton of various literary journals, and has her own poetry published in a multitude of print and online journals an magazines, including The Fem Lit and The Five-Two. You can (and definitely should) follow her at @agraue on Twitter. And buy her chapbook when it comes out this fall. I can guarantee I’ll be writing about it when it comes out!  ~KM

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This Brave New Rendering: A Review of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold

By Anne Graue

It’s all there: the isolation, the vengeance, the forgiveness. Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold is the story of Felix Phillips, a modern-day Prospero making magic in the theatre until he is set adrift by those who want him to disappear. His boat is a cabin without modern amenities, and he’s accompanied by the spirit of his dead daughter Miranda. Her presence “began when he was counting time by how old Miranda would be, had she lived….Call it a conceit, a whimsy, a piece of acting: he didn’t really believe it, but he engaged in this non-reality as if it were real” (45). He renames himself Mr. Duke and becomes a teacher with revenge always on his mind, consuming him as it would any of Shakespeare’s protagonists. Atwood’s novel takes the reader from exposition to denouement with Shakespearean precision, demonstrating how Shakespeare’s characters and themes are universal and eternal while shedding important light on the themes of literacy, art, and human nature.

Hag-Seed is primarily the story of Felix, the Art Director of an annual theatre festival. His attention to Shakespeare’s work and language in his theatre productions is unappreciated and misunderstood by coworkers with aspirations of ascending through the ranks of local politics. Felix’s plans to stage a production of The Tempest are thwarted, and he vows revenge on those who have unseated him. With careful attention to dramatic irony, readers are told that Felix “needed to get his Tempest back” and that “he wanted revenge” (41). The second story in the novel is the retelling of the play as social commentary on the need for education in prisons. The characters in this play, the medium security inmates of the Fletcher County Correctional Institute, read and perform in Felix’s class; they are the ones deemed most unworthy, the ones who most identify with Caliban in his exile and disgrace. He is a monster they understand. Atwood explores the connections her characters make with literature and the resulting connections to their own humanity.

Atwood’s meticulous use of Shakespeare’s language is so nuanced that the movement from one episode to the next is seamless and credible even as readers are invited to understand the presence of spirits and even magic in lives that on the outside might appear ordinary. Time is masterfully handled with titles and subtitles that indicate the divisions of the work that mirror those of the play. As Felix’s plans for revenge meld with the performance at the prison, he is sure that “whatever the form the thing assumes, it will depend on exact timing” (113). Atwood’s storytelling dexterity takes readers through Felix’s years of teaching until time catches up to the opening scene, and readers, with dramatic irony in tact and waiting with baited breath, experience the denouement with all of the catharsis expected from Shakespearean drama in this brave new rendering of archetypal themes.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold. Penguin Random House, LLC., 2016.

Graue, Anne. “This Brave New Rendering: A Review of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold.” Margaret Atwood Studies Journal, vol. 10, 2016, https://english.sxu.edu/sites/atwood/journal/index.php/masj/article/view/103. Accessed 22 February 2017.

 

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