Felix Phillips is the artistic director of a popular Canadian theater festival known for its daring productions of Shakespeare. Seeking to overcome his grief at the loss of both his wife (to a staph infection) and his three-year-old daughter Miranda (to meningitis), he throws himself into planning a knockout Tempest that he hopes will in some small way assuage his grief. In the midst of his directorial preparations, he is summarily ousted from his post by his conniving, self-promoting business partner, Tony Price. Adrift and depressed, he finds a deserted hovel, not far from the festival town of Makeshiweg, where he lives under an alias (Mr. Duke!), mourning his family and contemplating his revenge. After several years lived alone, spying via the internet on Tony — his once loyal colleague, now mortal enemy, who has moved on to a job in government as Minister of Heritage — and communing with an imagined reincarnation of his daughter Miranda, Felix fears he is losing his grip. He needs to “break out of [his] cell.” The prison metaphor is as central to the novel as it is to Shakespeare’s play. Felix applies for a job in a “Literacy through Literature” program at the nearby Fletcher County Correctional Institute. When he tells his interviewer Estelle, a sort of bureaucratic Ariel, that he plans to have the inmates read Shakespeare, she demurs, saying, “Shakespeare is such a classic.” In a scene that shows off Atwood’s considerable knowledge of the field of Shakespeare studies, Felix responds that Shakespeare
was simply an actor-manager trying to keep afloat. It’s only due to luck that we have Shakespeare at all! Nothing was even published till he was gone! His old friends stuck the plays together out of scraps — bunch of clapped-out actors trying to remember what they’d said, after the guy was dead.
Although few would agree that the earliest collection of Shakespeare plays, known as the First Folio, was a haphazard venture, and recently some Shakespeare scholars have argued that the playwright had literary ambitions for his plays, Felix’s characterization isn’t so far-fetched. Felix finds himself teaching and directing Shakespeare, in his words, to a “pack of cons.” After a bumpy start, the program is a great success, with the Fletcher Correctional Players producing a number of Shakespearean plays, including Julius Caesar, Richard III, and Macbeth. In the classroom, Felix uses various strategies for engaging his convict audience, including allowing them to swear, but only using profanities from the Shakespearean play they are studying (whoreson, poxy, hag-seed). For The Tempest, Felix has them count the number of prisons mentioned in the play, and his convict readers, who know a thing or two about prisons, include in their list Ariel’s “cloven pine” tree, where the spirit was once trapped for refusing Sycorax’s commands. Felix engages Anne-Marie Greenland, a gymnast and dancer whom he long ago had cast as Miranda, to play Miranda in his prison production. She works with the players to produce musical numbers filled with hip-hop rhythms. When Tony, now a cultural minister and politico, and his colleagues threaten to cut off funding for the program, Felix begins to concoct a plan that will enable him both to save the program and take his revenge. Atwood cunningly brings the reader along without giving away the plot, and this reviewer won’t be the spoiler either.
Hag-Seed is the fourth novel to appear in the Hogarth Shakespeare series launched in 2012 with the first books slated to appear just in time for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. That anniversary has been commemorated with dozens of productions, conferences, and reinterpretations around the globe. For their Shakespeare series, Crown Publishing commissioned some of the most important novelists writing today to retell Shakespeare’s plays in prose, and so far three have appeared: Jeanette Winterson’s take on The Winter’s Tale, titled The Gap of Time; Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name; and Anne Tyler’s The Taming of the Shrew, Vinegar Girl. Edward St. Aubyn is slated to rewrite King Lear. The series is designed to continue the work of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who established the Hogarth Press to publish the best new writing of their time.
Some have expressed dismay at these “covers,” a term borrowed from the music industry to refer to a new performance or recording of a previously released song by a different artist. Atwood herself has also written a pointed short story titled “Gertrude Talks Back” that retells the closet scene of Hamlet from Gertrude’s point of view. However, Shakespeare himself wrote dozens of “covers,” borrowing his plots from Italian novelle, from contemporary romances, chronicle histories, or from classical writers like Ovid, Plautus, or Plutarch. His early The Comedy of Errors rewrites a twin play by the Roman playwright Plautus. Twelfth Night borrows from both Ariosto and the Sienese twin play Gl’Ingannati, or The Deceived. Othello is based on the Italian short story writer Cinthio’s tale “Un Capitano Moro” from his collection the Hecatommithi. The Winter’s Tale revises the contemporary romance, Pandosto. And so on. Geoffrey Bullough’s mammoth Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays collected many of the texts from which Shakespeare borrowed in eight heavy tomes in the 1960s, and a group of Shakespeare scholars are working now to reissue Bullough’s work with yet more material. So in fact, the Hogarth Shakespeare series joins a long tradition of writers rewriting plots and stories to produce new work — one in which Shakespeare himself was a major player.
The Tempest is ironically one of the few Shakespearean plays that has no known source for its main plot. As Kenneth Muir noted in his study of Shakespeare’s sources, he “picked up hints from a number of different places, but the material he was dramatizing was the common stuff of romances.” However, scholars commonly acknowledge that Shakespeare read travel pamphlets and borrowed language from accounts of a famous shipwreck in the Bermudas in writing The Tempest. For Atwood’s readers who may not be familiar with Shakespeare’s play, Hag-Seed includes a brief summary of the play at novel’s end.
Yet perhaps the most interesting departure from Shakespeare’s plot in Atwood’s Hag-Seed is the author’s development of The Tempest’s prison metaphor. In writing of prison, Atwood returns to a theme and metaphor she used before in Alias Grace. In Hag-Seed, the many prisons of Shakespeare’s play become not only Felix’s hovel, and his own grieving mind, but also the literal, if fictional, Fletcher County Correctional Institute. Atwood draws on this robust phenomenon in Shakespeare studies as well as the penchant in prison rehabilitation programs to teach and produce Shakespeare in jails and prisons. Programs such as Shakespeare Behind Bars, the Bard Prison Initiative, and the Shakespeare in Prisons Network promote arts programming “for and by incarcerated and non-traditional populations,” and have been shown to reduce recidivism significantly. Atwood mentions in her afterword several of the works she read, works of prison literature and books on the teaching of Shakespeare behind bars, such as Laura Bates’s widely read memoir, Shakespeare Saved My Life.
And Shakespeare would seem to have saved the life of Atwood’s protagonist, Felix, who makes sure his enemies get their comeuppance via the magic of theater itself, magic produced through disguise and costume, a big flat screen, and a virtual reality experience that offers the visiting dignitaries a seeming prison riot. Like the characters in Shakespeare’s play, Lonnie Gordon of Gordon Strategy, once the chairman of the board of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival and father to Freddie, the novel’s Ferdinand, along with Justice Minister O’Nally, Minister of Heritage Tony Price, and Veterans Affairs Minister Stanley, are transformed by their theatrical experience while participating in Felix’s prison Tempest. Or in Felix’s own words to his actors — “Let’s make magic” — he wows them with wonder.
Karen Newman is Owen Walker ’33 Professor of Humanities and Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Brown University. She has written widely on early modern letters and culture and on Shakespeare and Renaissance drama.