Hag-seed, Margaret Atwood, author; R. H. Thomson, narrator
The book is read so convincingly by R. H. Thomson, an accomplished actor who brings that skill to every word he utters, that the characters leapt from the page into the real world and took on human forms. Listening to this book was truly like watching theater in my mind because of the performance given by the narrator.
The novel followed the themes and varied plots of the original script by Shakespeare, but it took place in the present day and current issues were addressed. Rap style lyrics were used which placed it in the here and now and often imparted a nice rhythm to the prose. All of the themes were perfectly rendered by the author in the setting of a modern prison. Revenge was carefully planned; vengeance was had and was followed by remorse, forgiveness and redemption. The varied plots involving power struggles, rivalry and salvation remained in Atwood’s version.
Felix Phillips was the head of the Makeshiweg Festival until he was betrayed by his associates and was unceremoniously removed from his position and escorted off the premises without even being allowed to say goodbye. His closest associate and protege, Tony, had deceived him by quietly working behind the scenes to depose him. Felix’s wife and daughter had died prematurely and he was still tormented by the loss of his young daughter from Meningitis. However, he was also arrogant and pompous and actually did little to maintain his position, acquiescing to Tony whenever he offered to take over his responsibilities so he could mourn.
Disappointed and humiliated he decided he didn’t need much to live on; he rented a shack and moved into the hovel with only the barest of necessities. (He lived an ascetic life, in much the same way that Prospero and Miranda had since they had been betrayed and abandoned in a boat that drifted to an island where they were forced to live in a cave.) Felix was lonely and missed his wife and child. He felt angry because he had been betrayed so bitterly by a man he thought was his friend. He developed an imaginary companion, his daughter Miranda. He actually believed he could see her, though he could not touch her. He engaged in conversations with her, but he recognized that no one else would either see or be able to speak to her.
He needed employment and soon found a job that when compared to his last position did not measure up, but it was work. He was a teacher at the Fletcher Correctional Facility instructing inmates in the art of acting, a program instituted to aid in their rehabilitation. He became another man, known only as Mr. Duke. In the blink of an eye, twelve years passed and his opportunity for revenge against his betrayers arrived out of the blue. (His imaginary daughter, whom he realized no one else could see, was now 15, just like the daughter of Prospero, who was a sorcerer as well as the rightful Duke of Milan.) With Miranda’s creation, Felix also seemed to be able to employ magic, and indeed, there were times when he thought Miranda was sending signals and prompting the actors during the performance.
Unbeknownst to the inmates, he was engaging them in his scheme to retaliate against those who had plotted against him on the festival committee. They had forced him out, and he designed the performance of The Tempest to enable him to settle that score. It was the perfect opportunity since the villains would be arriving to see it without knowing he was behind it; he was known as Mr. Duke, not Felix Phillips. It was the very same show that he had been preparing for the festival before he was terminated. Mr. Duke tried to cast each prisoner/actor in the play with a play character whose life paralleled that prisoner’s. Then he could better identify with the part he was playing. The same flaws and attributes were present in their personalities. As the characters in the play had lived their lives and faced adversity, in the parallel modern world, so did those performing in it. The characters created by Shakespeare in the 1600’s and the characters created by Atwood in 2016 had the same strengths and weaknesses. There were gentle characters and there were brutes. All were in a prison of a kind and all wanted out! All needed to forgive and be forgiven.
There were interesting parallels in the two plays, the old and the new. For instance, Felix’s cane mirrored Prospero’s staff. The imaginary Miranda was the same age as Prospero’s daughter, Miranda. Felix and his “daughter” were in a prison of his making; Prospero’s actions had led to his exile to an island with his child;and the inmates were incarcerated for foolish choices that they had made. They all had one main thing in common, they wanted to be set free.
In this reworked Tempest, Atwood took the opportunity to promote some of the liberal issues of today. Examples of topics that came to my mind are as follows: the need for the reform of the justice system in its entirety encompassing courts, sentences, prisons and police, equality for women, addressing climate change, the treachery that the need for power and position inspires, and the existence of racism historically and in the present day.
The author cleverly included a summary of the original play, at the end, to clear up any confusion for those who either had not read or had not remembered Shakespeare’s Tempest. Atwood has brilliantly rewritten the play for the modern world imaginatively with charm, humor and gravity injected at appropriate times. The characters are wisely used to explain and analyze the play. It was a joy to read.
***hag-seed=the offspring of a hag or a witch.