In 'Hag-Seed,' A Gentle Guide To Shakespeare's Stormy Island

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Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (Raquel Zaldivar/NPR)
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"No man is an island, entire of itself," John Donne famously reassured us in 1623, the same year Shakespeare's The Tempest was published in the First Folio. But "isolate" and "island" come from the same Latin root, and the truth is that we make our own islands where we daily maroon ourselves.

Take Felix Phillips, protagonist of Margaret Atwood's Hag-Seed. Ousted from his long-held job at a prominent Canadian theater festival by the machinations of his trusted right-hand man Tony, Felix hits the road, drives for days and stops randomly at an abandoned shack in the midst of farmland, where he will spend the next 12 years.

Hag-Seed, fourth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series of novels reworking the Bard's plays, is Margaret Atwood's take on The Tempest. But you don't need to be a Shakespeare geek like me to enjoy Hag-Seed; it's a good story, and will introduce you to the play gently, with Felix himself as your guide. (For now, if you'd like to refresh your Tempest knowledge, the plot is here.)

Tiring of his isolation, Felix takes a job in a prison teaching Shakespeare to the inmates. Soon he's directing them in scratch productions of the plays, rediscovering his own skill as he goes. Of course, right on cue, Felix's old nemesis Tony turns up with his political patrons for a photo opportunity; what better way to exact revenge than with a production of The Tempest?

The cast of convicts themselves are remarkably well-behaved; certainly tamer than Shakespeare's monstrous Caliban, whom they all want to play. "We get him," they say. "Everyone kicks him around but he don't let it break him." On the other hand, none of them are willing to play Ariel— until Felix talks them round to seeing the sprite as a cool alien, a non-human being with superpowers, the unseen hand controlling the special effects. At which point everyone wants to be Ariel.

In Shakespeare, Caliban and Ariel are both Prospero's captives, but in the end only Ariel is freed. Caliban's fate remains ambiguous: Is he still Prospero's property, loaded onto the ship to be displayed in Milan for pieces of silver? Or is he left on the island, King of an empty stage? In Hag-Seed, the prisoners convene after the show for a final discussion on the lives of their characters after the action, drawing their own conclusions about what happens on a ship in mid-ocean carrying a king, a duke, two lovers and two murderers.

A few of the cast also compose extended rap numbers exploring their characters. These are, unfortunately, the weakest part of the book. Don't get me wrong: There absolutely is a link between what Shakespeare was doing in the 1600s and what Missy Elliott and Nicki Minaj are doing now. But though Atwood is an excellent Prospero, she's no Lin-Manuel Miranda. Her rhymes read like something a cloistered English academic might imagine rap to be.

Strangely for an adaptation of The Tempest, the Canadian weather remains calm throughout, with the occasional dusting of snow. Atwood's storms, like her islands, are of human origin: the controlled chaos of the climactic performance, the psychological tumult inside Felix's skull. And in a novel, it's possible to get right inside the protagonist's head; in the theater, we can only know a character as far as they are willing to show and tell us. Atwood's Felix is amiable where Shakespeare's Prospero is forbidding — with Prospero, there's a real suspense over what form his revenge will take and how much pain he's willing to inflict. With Felix, we know that no matter how angry he gets, he'll recoil from any spilling of non-stage blood.

Shakespeare's Prospero is a prisoner too at the last: His staff broken and his book drowned, he's at the audience's mercy, pleading "Release me from my bands/ With the help of your good hands." Felix has no such concern. He can walk out of the prison as he pleases, leaving his players inside, securing early parole for only one. The reader, meanwhile, is still a prisoner inside Felix's head as long as the pages turn, viewing the story through his clouded lens until the author's indulgence sets us free. But it's a gentle captivity; Hag-Seed is both a retelling of Shakespeare and a book about Shakespeare, and it functions surprisingly well as both.

Liza Graham is a mezzo-soprano, writer and Shakespearean text coach.

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