“Hag-Seed” is Margaret Atwood’s latest masterpiece. It is not only a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” but revolves around that play as well. At times, it’s hard to believe that same person who orchestrated the somber drumbeat of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” or the hypnotizing pulse of “Surfacing,” has penned the frenetic third person narration in this novel, but Atwood once again smoothly reveals a deftness of craft and the power that the art of storytelling has, no matter the vehicle or venue.
“Hag-Seed” follows the story of Felix, who considers himself an avante-garde director and misunderstood genius. Some consider him eccentric; others view him as essential to the Canadian theatre festival; a few consider him a nuisance. While wrapped up in his artistic visions of a bold retelling of “The Tempest” — including a possibly paraplegic Caliban and a cape for Prospero sewn out of plush animal skins — the signs of a mutiny by his right hand man go straight over his head.
After Felix is ousted, he opts for self-banishment. He lives alone for years, before stumbling into a position that he never would have considered at the peak of his career — bringing theatre to felons. He grows to love it, wearing a different identity in the prison, enjoying the romantic anonymity and the opportunity to delve into Shakespeare’s work with those whom society has largely forgotten. Felix eventually learns of an opportunity for revenge too satisfying to pass up — which includes putting up his beloved production of “The Tempest” — and takes full advantage of it. Felix holds all the similarities between himself and Prospero close to his heart, even maintaining an unsettling relationship to his dead daughter Miranda. This relationship takes precedence over his relationship with reality, which is often tenuous at best.
“Hag-Seed” includes not only two stunning interpretations of “The Tempest,” but witty barbed pop culture references, including the illuminati, political correctness and kale. Atwood’s strongest prose is not the economical storytelling in which the plot unfolds neatly (for the most part) but the rare moments in which we are allowed a prolonged glimpse into Felix’s own introspection and uncertainties. The relationship between art and grief is prominent, but it’s shown not only as a venue to solace but to spiraling into desperation. The arc of how a person goes from frightening themselves with their own delusions to relying on them is eerie, but Atwood draws it in one steady hand.
Some of the themes — how do we create our own prisons, and how do we find our way out of them— may seem kitschy when laid forth plainly, which is why Atwood’s weaving them under plot, over subplot makes them work.
“Hag-Seed” is part of an initiative by the publishing company Hogarth to release a series of novels based on Shakespeare’s most beloved texts, but the intent to reinvent is subtle. Like Felix, Atwood has somehow succeeded at something highly improbable: taking a text already thought to have been thoroughly exhausted and breathing something new into it.