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Margaret Atwood’s clever retelling a Shakespeare production put on by inmates

FICTION

Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold

By Margaret Atwood

Hogarth

295 pages, $25

By Karen Brady

Margaret Atwood unleashes her wicked wit in the wonderfully named “Hag-Seed,” a cunning new novel bound to charm thespians everywhere – particularly those with ties to Ontario’s Stratford Festival.

For the Toronto-based Atwood – surely Canada’s best-known author – places this present-day retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in what we can only assume are the environs of Stratford and London, Ont., using as her protagonist one Felix Phillips, artistic director of the fictional repertory theater, the Makeshiweg Festival.

Like Stratford, the Makeshiweg has “fluttering pennants,” an “outdoor patio and landscaped floral surroundings and festive ice cream-licking playgoers,” the main street of the town replete “with its pricey restaurants and its pubs ornamented with the heads of archaic poets and pigs and Renaissance queens … and its Celtic woollen-goods outlets and Inuit carving shops and English china boutiques, and then its handsome yellow brick houses with their occasional bed and breakfast signs…”

Alas. Felix will soon be banished from his beloved Makeshiweg – much as Shakespeare’s Prospero was ousted, centuries ago, from his position as the Duke of Milan, both removals the result of power grabs sending Prospero and Felix into exile.

Felix’s takes place at the hands of Tony, the festival’s glad-handing “factotum” (think Antonio, brother of Prospero), along with Canada’s grudge-holding heritage minister Sal O’Nally (counterpoint: Shakespeare’s Alonso, King of Naples).

Betrayal begets reprisal, of course, and Atwood is at her cleverest as her Felix plots his, first from his rural Ontario hideaway, then from the Fletcher County Correctional Institute where – using the nom de plume “Mr. Duke” – he takes a position teaching in the prison’s Literacy Through Literature program: His focus will be the plays of Shakespeare, and his students will not only read but will perform Shakespeare, something they do for several years while Felix bides his time.

He is a man transfixed on revenge: “He longed for it. He day-dreamed about it. Tony and Sal must suffer. His present woeful situation was their doing … What was Felix waiting for? He hardly knew … suppressed rage sustained him. That and his thirst for justice.”

It is a delicious conundrum – and Atwood’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Other authors taking part in the international publishing effort include such notables as Anne Tyler, Edward St. Aubyn, Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, Gillian Flynn, Tracey Chevalier and Jo Nesbo, each creating a fresh novel from a Shakespeare play. (Ian McEwan’s brilliant new “Nutshell,” an unrelated Doubleday title, is based on the work of the bard as well, taking its inspiration from “Hamlet.”)

“The Tempest” – known for island storms, the magic of Ariel and the moods of Caliban, son of the malevolent Sycorax – is the perfect vehicle for Atwood’s “Hag-Seed.” Exile is not an isle here but a hideout, a subterfuge, a prison – and Miranda, Felix’s cherished daughter, exists only onstage although her presence is sensed by Felix whenever it is dusk.

A triply tragic figure, he lost his wife – to complications following childbirth – three years before his dismissal from the Makeshiweg. And, mere months before that life-altering expulsion, he lost little Miranda as well, to meningitis. But the child stays with him, a spirit-presence who grows older, as the years go by.

“Miranda’s fifteen now, a lovely girl,” Felix muses. “All grown up from the cherub on the swing who’s still enclosed in her silver frame beside his bedside … If she’d lived, she would have been at the awkward teenager stage: making dismissive comments, rolling her eyes at him, dying her hair, tattooing her arms. Hanging out in bars, or worse. He’s heard the stories. But none of that has happened. She remains simple, she remains innocent. She’s such a comfort.”

With this exception, Atwood stays close to Shakespeare’s plot – and she does so in a double way when she has Felix prepare his inmate-students for the production of his life, the very version of “The Tempest” he was planning for the Makeshiweg when he was so unceremoniously stripped of his directorship.

Thus it is that Atwood creates not only a play-within-a-play but the same play within itself, centuries apart.

It is an exceptional move, marred only by Atwood’s tendency to treat the prison production as only a professor or director would – with long, agonizing analyses of the play, and equally long, agonizing indecision over which inmate would be best for the parts not only of Ariel and Caliban but also such lesser folk as Stephano or Gonzalo.

Ferdinand one can understand for he, the prince of Naples, will be Miranda’s love interest – and Felix is fiercely protective not only of his own Miranda but also of Anne-Marie Greenland, the actress who was to play Miranda in the aborted Makeshiweg production 12 years before and who has graciously agreed to come to the prison to fulfill that dream.

Consenting to do this, she shakes Felix’s hand: “She had a grip like a jar-opener,” he notes. “Chastity won’t be the only reason his Prospero will be warning the Ferdinand lad to keep away from this girl: Ferdinand wouldn’t want to be a pre-mangled bridegroom.”

There is much hilarity here – especially within the prison walls where “Mr. Duke” has become a fixture, and inmates vie for spots in his classes. They all have monikers of their own -- Leggs, PPod, Bent Pencil, Wonderboy, 8Handz et al. – and personalities to match. For the duration, they have pledged to use only swear words from the production – “hag-seed” and “whoreson,” both referring to Caliban, and other words of the same ilk.

“Power struggles, treacheries, crimes,” Felix reflects, “these subjects were immediately grasped by his students since in their own ways they were experts in them.”

Felix himself will play Prospero and, crème de la crème, two Canadian ministers will pay a visit to the prison, to view the latest product of the Literacy Through Literature program – those dignitaries being Sal and, of course, Tony, now a minister too. Felix plans to subject them to a tempest of his own – one as makeshift as the prison costumes and sets but, with the aid of electronics, a very frightening tempest indeed.

“If his magic holds and his play is successful, he’ll get his heart’s desire,” he considers. “But if he fails…”

“Trust the play,” he decides. “But is the play trustworthy?”

Atwood plies her witchcraft in several directions here – and one can only guess at how many names and situations are in-jokes (a longtime practice of hers), adding more levels to an already-layered book. Local readers will pick up on her reference to “the Timmys doughnut chain” being responsible for one inmate’s sobriquet, “TimEEz.”

Fletcher, the prison, is fictional – but Atwood makes mention of a justice course once being taught there by the University of Western Ontario – which is in London, fewer than 40 miles from Stratford. As for the hallowed Stratford Festival being the inspiration for Felix – Atwood includes, among her acknowledgments, the fact that “Felix Phillips borrowed his last name from the late Robin Phillips, longtime theatre director at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada.”

In sum and in almost every way, Atwood’s latest offering is – in the words of Fletcher inmate Leggs – “whoreson fantastic!”

Karen Brady is a former News columnist.

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