Shakespeare in 2016

Margaret Atwood’s novel builds upon the rich foundation of the classic in order to create something newly minted and masterful

It would be a kick to take Margaret Atwood’s Shakespeare class. Reading her latest novel is as close as most of us will ever get, but it’s no poor substitute. The celebrated and prolific author takes on the Bard’s work with her latest novel, a retelling, a reteaching, and a mirror of Shakespeare’s island drama, The Tempest. Atwood’s Hag-Seed, the newest release from Hogarth Shakespeare’s contemporary “covers,” follows Felix Phillips, beleaguered director of a local Shakespeare festival, as he gets lost in obsessive fixation with his productions and his livelihood is usurped by a power-hungry underling. Felix loses his position of power and ends up exiled — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — and plots a big storm to trap his enemies, take revenge, and take back what was his. Felix’s “island” in Hag-Seed is a prison where he sets up a literacy program to teach Shakespeare to prisoners. His opportunity for some good old fashioned five act vengeance? A staging of none other than Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

If you’ve read or seen The Tempest, then you’ll recognize Felix immediately as Atwood’s Prospero; he appropriately has some daughter issues (Atwood names Felix’s daughter Miranda, but hold that “too on the nose” comment, because Atwood’s take isn’t so simple). Immediately it’s clear that there’s more to the alchemy of Atwood’s approach than the long in-joke, the wink and grin. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in. I’m so in — this is a treat for us nerds. That’s the fun of these books, right? The secret signals between author and reader, the treasure hunt as you read. Make no mistake that Atwood’s novel — like any good retelling or reworking, or new version of a tale — is a basket of Easter eggs. But as the reworking of an archetype, it succeeds on its own because of how Atwood employs the material she’s given — as a compelling story in its own right, undeniably augmented by the underlying magic of the original, and made better for being built upon such rich a rich foundation. In Atwood’s sure hands, the layers of reference are so delicately folded upon each other that an attempt to read Hag-Seed as just a straight retelling doesn’t do it justice. Atwood employs the archetype of The Tempest in three ways simultaneously: as a model for the structure of her own story, as a “play within the (retelling of the) play,” and — most uniquely, for this type of work — as a didactic text.

“Atwood employs the material she’s given — as a compelling story in its own right, undeniably augmented by the underlying magic of the original, and made better for being built upon such rich a rich foundation.”

Atwood has internalized the plot and history of The Tempest so thoroughly that she breathes it into every word. The myriad ways she’s employed the source are almost too enumerate to list; but she moves between a close hold of the original and a more distant, brushing touch with its plot points. Because her characters, Felix in particular, have such intimate knowledge of Shakespeare and The Tempest, they remark often on how much their lives mirror the play. In some ways even Atwood’s characters are in on the conceit; Felix shapes his destiny in Prospero’s image, even when he acts against his own interests: “This is the extent of it,” he muses when he begins to teach in the prison, “My island domain. My place of exile. My penance. My theatre.” Atwood has him speak Shakespeare’s lines constantly. He tells his actors, the prisoners, that “what’s past is prologue,” that their crimes don’t matter as much as their work ethic and dedication. Atwood molds Felix’s ambition and madness and sets the stage (pun intended) for his eventual meltdown, but she’s also having a ton of fun with the language and doing what Shakespeare, himself, did: packing puns and allusions into her lines that will run past ears of the audience, but these references reward a close read. Atwood’s text runs on parallel tracks: it’s an interesting story of vengeance by a guy who was booted from his theater job and gets bitter about it; but it’s also a variegated twist on an old story about Prospero’s loss and the creation of a revenge scenario for those who recognize the original. Atwood reanimates it enough to offer commentary. Atwood bends the archetype into something new through her use of metafiction and these parallel stories.

“Atwood bends the archetype into something new through her use of metafiction and these parallel stories.”

What sets Atwood’s work apart from other novels in the genre of tales retold is how she uses her authorial role to instruct. There are moments of direct reference to how Felix teaches Shakespeare’s plays to prisoners; his exercises are similar to the kinds of assignments that are taught in contemporary high schools and are not groundbreaking revelations in and of themselves. But once Atwood moves beyond the simple how-tos of Felix’s job, she gets to the delicious meat of what she, herself, believes and has discovered in her own research of the play. This is embedded in her characters’ discoveries of the work as they endeavor to stage it. In this way, her work resembles most closely the aims of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which the author wrote as a philosophical exercise to examine the concept of Timshel. Atwood, here, through Felix, but more refreshingly through the voices of the prisoners, explores the many possibilities of what Prospero’s storm means, who Ariel and Caliban really were to the old man, and what it means for Prospero to let his daughter go. Through Felix’s delusions, Atwood asks important questions about the nature of theater and belief. She raises questions like a good teacher, playing devil’s advocate and offering new theories through the mouths of the prisoners as they discover Shakespeare. One actor, in a final assignment, remarks how Prospero is “careless about his own body, close to home…,” while another asks, “‘Is extreme goodness always weak? Can a person be good only in the absence of power?” Felix glows when he sees his students take Shakespeare and run with it — often awkwardly, and in directions he hasn’t planned. But what’s the harm? And as in life — in teaching — Felix’s students lead him to his own discoveries about the play. Atwood is the excited, enthusiastic teacher you want: she explores every aspect of the play in her work; she’s enjoying the work and she wants you to, too. Will she make you cringe from time to time with her earnestness? Sure. But you’re going to walk away thinking differently about the elemental storm Shakespeare created, and her novel accomplishes a kind of open-ended questioning that is unique, even among novels of its type.

If there’s a quibble to be had with Hag-Seed, it’s the lack of depth Atwood gives the players, Felix’s prisoners. We get little information about each man other than his rap sheet and nickname. While Felix and others are complex, fallible, and round, the prisoners exist mostly as a set of types to fill the cast of Felix’s play. Does Atwood want it this way, to shift the focus to Felix, who embraces his own delusion so wholeheartedly and decidedly that he crosses out of realism? “ [I]t was only a short distance from wistful daydreaming to the half-belief that she was still there with him…” Felix tells himself in the middle of a vision. “Call it 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.” While Felix is assigned a full set of delusions and conflicting desires for revenge, his actors lack complicated motivation. While it’s possible to envision a book where the lives of the actors/prisoners are the thing, that’s not this book. Atwood’s layering of her story upon the original means that her characters are imbued with a kind of automatic characterization by association. We are given information about which other Shakespearean characters they have played in previous productions, but Atwood is counting on us, most certainly, to assign to them the traits of their counterparts within The Tempest. This elevates them from types to fully realized characters, but as a characterization strategy, this is limiting because not every reader of Hag-Seed will have read The Tempest.

People haven’t known what to do with The Tempest — as Atwood points out, it was performed as an opera; for centuries it includes more songs than any of the rest of Shakespeare’s plays. Atwood’s take is something new, not just for what she creates in her own retelling, but for how she uses the play so obtusely within it. There’s something refreshing about how she doesn’t play coy. She comes out and says yes, I’m doing this, and it’s up to the reader to look beyond the obvious references, the easy interpretation that says there’s a one-to-one correlation between the play and this new book. And Atwood can’t help herself: her excitement bleeds onto the page; she wants to share what she knows. She wants to challenge what we know, what we expect, and what we want from Shakespeare in 2016.

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