It has taken me almost exactly a year to finish reading Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. There are a few reasons for this, including an abundance (read: two) children under the age of three in my household, a plethora of other writing and reading projects, and my reticence to pick up a hardcover book when it’s so much easier to read on my Kindle (I know; I’m a book Philistine). But the main reason it took me so long to finish is that I just could not warm up to this book. I tried; really, I did. But Hag-Seed just did not do it for me.
I’d read two Atwood books prior to Hag-Seed: The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake. I adored The Handmaid’s Tale and very much enjoyed Oryx and Crake. Atwood is a brilliant, inventive writer whose books push hard on social bruises. I love how her books make readers squirm. I was looking forward to her take on The Tempest, despite the fact that I’ve never read the play, because I’d had such good experiences with The Hogarth Shakespeare project in the past. This project asks contemporary writers to put their own spin on Shakespeare’s classics. Last year, I read Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time and loved it, despite having never read A Winter’s Tale. I was very appreciative of the fact that Winterson provided context for her take on A Winter’s Tale by providing a summary of the play in the beginning of her novel. This anchored Winterson’s story to Shakespeare’s original work so that even a reader as unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s canon as I could follow along and see the parallels Winterson was drawing.
With Hag-Seed, however, Atwood launches straight into her take on The Tempest without providing a summary of the original. This wouldn’t be a problem except that truly appreciating Hag-Seed‘s plot is highly dependent on a reader’s working knowledge of The Tempest. Thus, much is lost on a Shakespeare dunce like me.
Hag-Seed tells the story of a thwarted theater director, Felix, who takes revenge on the men who ruined his career. In the beginning of the story, Felix is the director of the respected Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, and is planning what he believes will be a career-making interpretation of The Tempest. However, he is forced out of his position by two rivals and his play never comes to fruition. He goes into a kind of exile, adopting a new identity as “Mr. Duke” and becoming the director of a theater/literacy program at a local prison. Years later, he hatches a plan for revenge on the men who forced him out of Makeshiweg, staging an “experimental” version of The Tempest with his prisoner-actors (“the Fletcher Correctional Players”) that he believes will force his enemies to rue the day they crossed him. Meanwhile, Felix is in close communication with the spirit of his daughter, Miranda, who died twelve years ago, when she was three years old.
As I read Hag-Seed, I could appreciate Atwood’s spare yet evocative prose, her wittiness, her effective building of tension and suspense. But I couldn’t get into the meat of the story. I couldn’t trace the parallels between this story and the play or admire the neat layering of The Tempest over and through Atwood’s story, because I am not familiar enough with Shakespeare’s original work. At times, reading Hag-Seed felt like reading a beautifully written review of The Tempest: I could tell it was well-executed, but having not read the play, I couldn’t totally follow the analysis.
Toward the end of the book, when the prisoner-actors each present a report on the characters they played, I found myself skimming, because their detailed analyses of Shakespeare’s characters meant nothing to me. And then, when I finally finished the novel, I was chagrined to see, tucked away at the very end of the book, a summary of The Tempest. Undoubtedly, if I had read that summary first, I would have gotten more out of Hag-Seed. But even so, I suspect that this book is meant more for readers with a deep (or at least working) knowledge of The Tempest. I’m afraid the fault here may be mine, but I am disappointed nonetheless.
I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this honest review.