“Tempest of the Headspace”: Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed

“Also,” said Felix, “it’s on a universal theme.” What he had in mind was vengeance – that was certainly universal. He hoped she wouldn’t ask him about the theme: vengeance was so negative, was what she’d say. A bad example. Especially bad, considering the captive audience.

Hag-Seed is one of a series of novels commissioned for the Hogarth Shakespeare project, which is just the kind of hybrid literary-commercial venture that usually puts me off — and which, in its Austen incarnation, I have recently sworn off altogether. Too often, the intent is too clearly to cash in, or the results are too clearly inferior to the inspiration, and I am left wishing authors would just write their own d–n books. (I realize, of course, that many classics are themselves, in one way or another, indebted to or homages to other texts. But who says irritability has to be entirely consistent?)

I was fretful, therefore, when my book club settled on Hag-Seed for our next read. As my experience with Atwood’s fiction has also been mixed over the years, I would at least have been happier if we’d chosen Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl: one of Tyler’s main virtues is that she is dependable! But one of the reasons to belong to a book club is so that I read some things I wouldn’t necessarily pick for myself, so I dutifully ordered Hag-Seed, read it … and (surprise!) thoroughly enjoyed it.

Why does Hag-Seed succeed (for me, at least) where so many other derivative novels have failed? I think it’s because throughout, it communicates Atwood’s own gleeful enjoyment of the undertaking. I don’t think Hag-Seed is particularly profound, and it has little (though not none) of the poetry that decorates the original (what grace and beauty there is in the novel often comes by way of lines from The Tempest itself). But — at least for someone with only a passing acquaintance with Shakespeare’s play — Hag-Seed is a clever, as well as entertaining, recreation of The Tempest on Atood’s own chosen terms.

Hag-Seed particularly embraces the “play within a play” conceit of The Tempest, in which Prospero contrives and manipulates events for his own gratification. Atwood’s protagonist, Felix Phillips, is ousted from his position as Director of the Makeshiweg Festival just before he launches a spectacular new production of The Tempest. He had thrown himself into it to distract himself from his heartbreak over the death of his baby daughter Miranda:

What he couldn’t have in life he might still catch sight of through his art: just a glimpse, from the corner of his eye.

He would create a fit setting for this reborn Miranda he was willing into being. He would outdo himself as an actor-director. He would push every envelope, he would twist reality until it twangled. There was a feverish desperation in those long-ago efforts of his, but didn’t the best art have desperation at its core? Wasn’t it always a challenge to Death? A defiant middle finger on the edge of the abyss?

But the treachery of a colleague who then usurps his place ruins Felix’s plans and forces him into exile, where he broods for years over his lost daughter, his lost position, and his dreams of revenge. When he takes on a job promoting literacy in a local prison by producing Shakespeare plays, he unexpectedly discovers the perfect plan.

There’s lots of fun in the development of Felix’s elaborate plot, which both mimics and incorporates the multiple interconnected plots of The Tempest. Though Hag-Seed is ultimately more satirical than earnest, there’s also a more serious strand, woven through the novel’s comedy, about the role of literary programming in prisons, something Atwood addresses in her acknowledgments as well as through the actors’ discussions of real and metaphorical prisons in the play they are putting on. (I found the classroom sessions on The Tempest fascinating, even though — or maybe because — they were wholly unlike the kinds of classroom discussions I am used to.) Though Felix’s quest for vengeance is as absurd as it is diverting, his mourning for his own lost Miranda (whose spirit haunts him) is often very touching; it adds a human dimension to him that balances the novel’s arch tone.

Of course, I have to wonder if not knowing the ‘primary source’ is what freed me up to appreciate Hag-Seed. If The Tempest were dear to my heart the way Jane Eyre and Daniel Deronda are, would I have gone along less cheerfully? There’s a playful quality to Atwood’s interaction with The Tempest throughout that makes me think I would still have liked it: she’s not overriding it or imposing herself on it, or (worst of all) condescending to it or correcting it, but rather (like her actors) immersing herself in it and making it her own. Still, I’d be interested to hear from people who approach the novel from a more informed position.

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4 Responses to “Tempest of the Headspace”: Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed

  1. Bill from PA says:

    I’ve been re-reading Shakespeare and plays by his contemporaries and using the project as an excuse to get to the Shakespeare-derived fiction on my shelves, all of it dating to before the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, which I have avoided.

    Robert Nye’s Falstaff went up not just against the Bard but Rabelais as well, and did not come off very well in either verbal playfulness or whimsical bawdry. For two-thirds of its length Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius worked well for me as an elegantly written medieval historical novel, more Tristan and Isolde than Hamlet, but the last section begins to impinge on Shakespeare’s story, and Updike had taken his characters in directions which did not fit with some aspects of the actual plot of the play. I also enjoyed Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, but felt that one melodramatic aspect of the King Lear plot which she used did not sit very well with the character and milieu she had carefully set up, perhaps something like the vengeance plot you note in Hag-Seed.

    If you’re in Tempest-mode and, as your Twitter feed indicates, struggling with getting into Science Fiction, perhaps a viewing of Forbidden Planet would be diverting or helpful.

  2. Jeanne says:

    I quite agree that the novel is gleeful, and fun to read. Many Shakespeare plays are “dear to my heart” without me ever claiming a position more informed than anyone else’s, because I grew up in a family where going to see Shakespeare plays was what we did, whenever possible. I saw them at home (my father taught theater history and directed plays at the local university) and when we went on trips, some of which we took to see interesting theaters and interesting productions.
    So I love it when I can see (or read) yet another interpretation of these plays that I grew up with and love. (Although as I noted in my review of Vinegar Girl, I never could never love that one particular play until I read Tyler’s version.)

  3. Irene says:

    I’m the person who didn’t like Lillian Boxfish, saying it had too much telling, not enough showing. That was my guess at what was wrong for me, but as you indicated, I was probably wrong. I know that certain novels pull me in, while others leave me a respectful outsider. (For example, I stay untouched–though not unimpressed–by much of modern American “literary fiction”) Any speculation about what makes the difference?

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      You might not have been wrong for your own taste! Although I personally did not think Lillian Boxfish did a lot of telling (as I understand the term), perhaps for you it was too reflective and not active enough? There is always something of a mystery about which novels pull us in but leave others outside — for instance, I just had an email exchange today with someone whose response to Hag-Seed was much less enthusiastic than mine! But I do think in general there is a prejudice against telling in some circles today, and I think that misses the point that there can be value in it.

      I hope you didn’t feel scape-goated when I cited your comment. The “rule” is, as I said, a bit of a personal pet peeve, and you just happened into it.

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