In Which Margaret Atwood Revisits Shakespeare’s Brave New World: A Review of Hag-Seed
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
Random House, 2016
Paperback ₹ 599
Kindle, pp 245, ₹ 274.86
A new Margaret Atwood book is always cause for much revelry in certain bibliophilic circles, and she never disappoints. The latest from the Atwood production line is a brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Excuse the irreverence. It is only a homage to the masterful irreverence with which Atwood shifts the focus away from the primary cast of Prospero and Miranda, and chooses to draw her title from the often uni-dimensionally villanized Caliban. In Atwood’s novel, Caliban becomes that Shakespearean insult— the spawn of the hag Sycorax— Hag-Seed. The destabilizsation apparent in the title continues for the rest of the text.
Hag-Seed is Atwood’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series. The Hogarth Press was founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf with the intention of publishing the best new writings of the early twentieth century. The revival of Hogarth in 2012 attempted to do the same. The Hogarth Shakespeare project was started in 2015 to re-tell Shakespeare’s stories. It has had Jeanette Winterson adapting A Winter’s Tale and Howard Jacobson re-telling The Merchant of Venice. Atwood’s book is the third in the series, contemporizing Shakespeare’s plot, substituting a prison house for the prison that Prospero’s island was.
Hag-Seed, like a lot of Shakespeare’s plays, is difficult to pigeonhole. At a pinch, it works like a revenge drama. The protagonist Felix, the director of a drama festival, is overthrown in a coup by his next in command, the very Antonio-like Tony. Removed from a seat of power rightfully his, Felix withdraws to the peripheries of the world, disappearing into a space that is rustic, almost hostile and far removed from civilization, hidden away from the intrusions of the world- again, in an echo of Prospero’s island. His misery is exacerbated by the grief of having lost his daughter Miranda, briefly before losing his position in the world of theatre. He starts afresh as a theatre instructor and director at a correctional facility, with a new name (Mr. Duke, because Atwood is not one to let an opportunity slide by). A chance event brings his antagonists back into his space— the jail where he is the magician/craftsman teaching theatre and the prisoners are all following his orders for reasons of their own. He decides to stage The Tempest as a counter-coup in which those who wronged him would be forced to reinstate him and the novel almost becomes a study of how theatre can become a tool of the restitution of justice.
Like all of Atwood’s fiction, the novel is rich in irony, gleefully using inversions, adding details from popular culture, exposing the vulnerabilities of its protagonists. Felix, having lost his daughter, and perhaps unable to deal with the grief, begins to see her, not just as a sporadic hallucination, but as the virginal child-woman whose only point of contact with the world is her father. The parallels with the Shakespearean text are only too apparent, but Atwood cannot help but engage politically with her canvas. There is, therefore, ample evidence of corruption and nepotism in the political circles, the need for prison reforms and rehabilitation, and the downward incline the education system. Much immediacy informs her words when her Felix insists on the uselessness of money in his grand scheme of things:
‘I’m not doing it for the money,’ Felix says out loud. He turns: Miranda’s sitting at the table, a little pensively (…) ‘I never did,’ he adds. Miranda nods, because she knows that to be true: noble people don’t do things for the money, they simply have money, and that’s what allows them to be noble. They don’t really have to think about it much; they sprout benevolent acts the way trees sprout leaves. (Atwood, 2016, p. 54)
A statement that is ironic, wry, and characteristically Atwood.
Atwood’s adaptation might not be a post-colonialist, Aime Cesare type, agenda-driven political text, but it does a stellar job of giving voice as well as agency to the hitherto disempowered. Her Felix is a controlling, and insistently although unconsciously patriarchal father. Her Caliban, played by one of the jail inmates, is a radical who wants to break out of oppression. He re-claims the curses thrust on him and turns his aggression outward to exact revenge on his oppressors. Like a introduction to his character states, “Here comes Caliban, From his prison in a stone, Kept in slavery, Made to groan, But come what may, He got to have his own say!”
Coming on the back of Atwood’s last work, The Heart Goes Last (2015), a dystopian novel, Hag-Seed furthers Atwood’s preoccupation with the state of human existence in a world that is rapidly losing both meaning and freedom, where control rests in the hands of the privileged few, and where lines between good and evil have been blurred to a degree where both seem to merge into each other. Whether or not this adaptation has direct relevance to the cultural context we occupy is something perhaps best left to the reader to decide.
Saloni Sharma teaches English literature at Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi. Her academic work centres around gender studies and pop cultures. She spends the better part of the year hunting down Kindle deals and reading everything that she can lay her hands on.