Book Review: “Hag-seed” by Margaret Atwood

Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood

This novel was prepared for the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which has also published Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. The series is a gimmick, asking famous authors to write something new based on a Shakespeare play. Gimmicks can be silly and shallow, but judging by the two I have read, the Hogarth gimmick is working pretty well. Good writer plus great inspiration, is a formula, but it can be a good one.

I think Atwood was a bit liberated by the commission, and made good use of the invitation. She takes the opportunity to riff off The Tempest, Shakespeare’s complex play about magic, love, revenge, power, deceit, and second chances. She gives us a very Shakespearean story, complicated, fantastic, and psychologically touching.

Atwood sets the story, aptly enough, in a (literal) prison; and the plot involves producing a performance of The Tempest. A play inside the play is, of course, very Shakespeare. There is also a complicated and improbably revenge plotted by the old sorcerer who is just the other side of mad.

Very Shakespeare.

The acting company consists of convicts, which makes them about middling troublesome for a director—not the worst actors he has dealt with. These men bring some tough times and actual imprisonment to their acting; and enacting the play uncovers depths unsuspected in these flawed and troubled people.

And, as Shakespeare would have it, the “criminals” come off as decent and moral people,  the masters and ministers are viscous and immoral skunks.  The next generation is redeemed by love. Etc.

The original Tempest is about imprisonment of various kinds, which makes it quite significant to the inmates, and makes their interpretations quite interesting. The play is also about second chances, which is a small but welcome balm to the imprisoned. The novel also makes a case for the redemptive power of the theater and the craft of acting.

Of course, the revenge plot at the center of the novel is absurd in every aspect. The perceived wrongs are obsessively built out of proportion; the opportunity is flukey; and the planned confrontation itself is improbable and irrational. Staging this conspiracy inside a secured prison is beyond nuts, it’s just flat impossible to believe. It makes no sense at all.

Willie boy would have loved it!

The Hogarth commission gave Atwood call to explore the original play, the history of its many interpretations, and the craft of producing and acting it. She makes good use of the process of developing the production of a performance as the plot line for the novel. In this, she weaves observations of creating and rehearsing the play with the development of the characters, relationships, and the producer’s (batty) secret plans. She uses a deft and light touch, and the result is quite good reading.

Gimmick or not, I really liked this story.

  1. Margaret Atwood,  Hag-seed, New York, Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016.


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