In troth, Margaret Atwood’s latest novel “Hag-Seed,” part of the Hogarth’s Shakespeare series, is a gloriously fun re-imagining of Shakespeare’s “Tempest.”
Atwood sets her story in modern Canada, where the devious and twisted Tony Price forces Felix Phillips out of his job as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. Felix assumes a new name: Mr. Duke. After living in exile in a shanty for several years, he becomes an instructor at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute. In his fourth year there, and, with the assistance of the Fletcher Correctional players, Felix revenges himself upon Tony and his cronies.
So far in this series, Hogarth has published four books written by critically acclaimed and popular writers. Hogarth began with Jeanette Winterson’s “Gap of Time,” her take on “The Winter’s Tale”; followed by Howard Jacobson’s “Shylock Is My Name,” a re-imagining of “The Merchant of Venice”; and Anne Tyler’s “Vinegar Girl,” a remake of “The Taming of the Shrew.” Jacobson’s Shakespeare rendition has been the best until now.
Atwood, who’s written more than 40 books of fiction, poetry and essays, loves Shakespeare as I do. Her story, which takes place mostly in Fletcher Correctional, is funnier than Jacobson’s but, as in Shakespeare’s comedies, there are poignant moments.
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Atwood’s story is easier to follow than Jacobson’s, her sense of humor less dry. “Hag-Seed” casts Felix as Shakespeare’s Prospero, the rightful but exiled Duke of Milan. Tony is Antonio. Tony and his cohorts on the theater board force Felix out of office and have him escorted to his car by security guards. The poor guy drives around aimlessly and ends up living in squalor in a shanty. Not only is Felix a mad hermit, he is a widowed mad hermit, whose daughter Miranda died at 3 – unlike Prospero’s daughter Miranda, who’s 15. But Felix’s Miranda lives as an Ariel-like fairy, a spirit who seems to partially exist outside Felix’s mind.
In his ninth year of exile when Miranda is 12, Felix takes a job as an instructor at Fletcher Correctional. His course is part of the “Literacy Through Literature” program. Instead of requiring prisoners to read “Catcher in the Rye,” as the previous instructor had, Felix’s students perform plays.
There are no prisoners in Felix’s course, only actors. They perform only Shakespeare. Besides acting and performing the thousand natural tasks that plays are heir to, the prisoners are expected to write summaries about the characters as they exist in the play and might exist post-play. When a play is finished, it’s recorded and played for the rest of Fletcher Correctional. In its first three years, the Fletcher Players presented “Julius Caesar,” “Richard III” and “Macbeth.” Plenty of crime, treachery and power struggles appealed to Fletcher’s actors. But ’twere a pox upon any actor if he cursed using any language outside the play, though “wide-chapp’d rascal” and “hag-seed” were permissible, and fun for the actors and the reviewer.
Meanwhile, Tony and his cohorts have become government bigwigs who determine the fate of the literacy program. When Felix hears about this, he decides to present “The Tempest.” Anon, with the help of his players, Felix exacts his revenge using electronic gadgetry and pixie dust – otherwise known as hallucinogens.
Hogarth shalt follow-up on Atwood’s phenomenal “Hag-Seed,” with four Shakespeare remakes: Tracy Chevalier’s “Othello,” Gillian Flynn’s “Hamlet,” Jo Nesbo’s “Macbeth,” and Edward St Aubyn’s “King Lear.”
By my troth, I canst not wait.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at email@example.com or through his blog at http://josephpeschel.com/HaveWords/
By Margaret Atwood
Hogarth, 324 pages