Up Late with Hagseed by Margaret Atwood
I’ve really been enjoying the Hogarth series where modern writers rewrite Shakespeare Plots (I reviewed Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl earlier this year). Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest is superb. I found myself rooting for Felix, who’s been ousted from his position as the Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival and ends up teaching Shakespeare in a prison. The title comes from one of the insults in the play. Felix has his actors make a list of all the curses in the play, and then insists they only use the ten they select as a class for any future cursing. The result is endearing–all these tough guys using Shakespearian curses.
Felix works hard at his revenge, but we can see through his mask at times: “Then he grins: the grin of a cornered chimpanzee, part anger, part threat, part dejection.” And he does question himself–as a villain he’s not particularly evil, especially since he questions himself so much: “He’s in control, isn’t he? The right words in the right order, that’s his real security.” But the people at the prison and those visiting do need to watch out for him, as he can be dangerous: “It’s the words that should concern you, he thinks at them. That’s the real danger. Words don’t show up on scanners.”
The way Felix exacts his revenge seems fitting and not terrible, in the end. The play, of course, isn’t a tragedy the way other Shakespearean plays are. What I particularly enjoyed in this version was the way Atwood allowed for the characters to have life after the play. The final assignment for the actors is to imagine life after the performance, and that may have been my favorite part, especially for Miranda. The end is heartwarming and offers readers a sense of completion that doesn’t seem unreasonable. So even if you’re not a fan of The Tempest, you should pick up a copy of this story, as it allows for redemption, forgiveness, and healing for many of the characters.