THE BARD’S NEW VOICE

In her retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Margaret Atwood navigates modernity, enchantment and complexity

Some years ago, the publishing company Hogarth announced a fascinating initiative: a series of novels based on Shakespeare’s most famous works. To date, eight novelists have signed on to reinterpret eight plays. In Hag-Seed, the fourth in the series, Margaret Atwood has taken on The Tempest. The setting is present-day Canada and her Prospero – the protagonist of the original – is Felix, artistic director of an Ontario theatre festival.

In the original play, Prospero was deposed as duke of Milan by his conniving brother, Antonio, who placed him and his three-year-old daughter, Miranda, in a “rotten carcass of a (boat)” to die at sea. A tempest led them instead to a remote island where Prospero devoted himself to the study of magic and used his powers to protect his daughter and control the island. In Atwood’s version, the Antonio character is Tony, Felix’s festival partner, who handles operational matters while Felix immerses himself in staging ever-wilder productions of the kind that typically make small-town boards of directors a little nervous. His Pericles involves extraterrestrials. He stages Macbeth with chain saws.

Felix, like Prospero, is a widowed father. But in Hag-Seed, the child too is lost, when Felix’s daughter, Miranda, dies suddenly at the age of 3. Immediately following the funeral, Felix plunges himself into a new production of The Tempest. It will be his edgiest and most ambitious production yet and he himself will play Prospero. He’ll resurrect his lost Miranda on the stage.

But before the play opens, Tony strikes. With the approval of his handpicked board ºof directors and his friend Sal in the Ministry of Canadian Heritage — a branch of the Canadian government that, among other things, finances theatre festivals — Tony takes over as artistic director and has Felix escorted out by security. Given Sal’s position, it goes without saying that Felix won’t be able to start his own festival somewhere else. He rents a run-down cottage outside of town and settles quietly into brooding exile.

In the fourth act of The Tempest, Prospero summons a crowd of spirits to entertain his daughter and her fiancé. Nymphs and goddesses assemble, but the revelry’s hardly begun when Prospero’s mood changes abruptly. He dismisses the spirits in an eerie bit of stage direction — “to a strange, hollow and confused noise, they heavily vanish” — and explains to his puzzled soon-to-be son-in-law that “these our actors … were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air.” In Atwood’s reinterpretation, Miranda is a spirit too, melting in and out of thin air in her father’s cottage. While the lost kingdom in Hag-Seed might seem comparatively trivial, a theatre festival versus the city of Milan, the festival was all Felix had and the lost daughter lends a layer of anguish absent from the play.

As years pass in solitude and Felix lives off his savings and retirement package, obsessed with revenge, he likes to imagine he’s not alone. When he realises he can actually hear his daughter’s voice, he decides he’s taken solitude too far and finds employment teaching literacy at the local prison. In the class, which quickly becomes wildly popular, the inmates study and perform Shakespeare.

Felix finds pleasure in engaging with the outside world again, although it doesn’t make Miranda any less real. He’s drawn to Estelle, the professor who supervises the programme, but doesn’t act on his attraction because “he has a dependent child, and those duties come first.” His relationship with reality is uncertain. When he’s not caring for his ghostly daughter, he obsessively tracks his enemies across the ocean of the Internet. Tony joins Sal in
the political realm and is appointed to the federal cabinet.

Twelve years after Miranda’s death and Felix’s dismissal from the festival, Estelle — the personification of the “auspicious star” that delivers Prospero’s enemies to the island — asks him to lunch to deliver some news: the literacy programme is on the fiscal chopping block, but she’s pulled some strings and arranged for two cabinet ministers to visit and watch a performance, mostly for the photo op. The ministers are Sal and Tony. Felix’s enemies will be delivered to him in the penitentiary.

Is this all a little too convenient? Of course it is, but in fairness, there’s an inevitable problem of translation inherent to the entire Hogarth Shakespeare project: how to create a credible contemporary novel from a work written four centuries ago for the stage? It’s perhaps more straightforward in the case of the tragedies — there have been various novelistic interpretations of King Lear over the years — but how to handle Shakespeare’s more fantastical offerings, the plays with stage directions like Enter certain Nymphs (from The Tempest) or Enter Time, the chorus (from The Winter’s Tale)? In The Gap of Time, her Hogarth reinterpretation of The Winter’s Tale, Jeanette Winterson opted to address the work’s wilder elements by means of a video game, wherein time becomes a player. In Hag-Seed, Atwood opts for, well, the play itself. When he learns that his enemies will be delivered into his hands, Felix decides to stage an unusually interactive performance of The Tempest. In some ways, staging the play at the prison is an elegant choice: Prospero’s island is both prison and theater, and the play-within-a-play was of course a favorite device of Shakespeare’s, while the novel-within-a-novel has in the past been used by Atwood to spectacular effect.

The novel to this point is a marvel of gorgeous yet economical prose, in the service of a story that’s utterly heartbreaking yet pierced by humour, with a plot that retains considerable subtlety even as the original’s back story falls neatly into place. In the prison production of The Tempest, at least some of the prisoners are in on Felix’s plot. There is also an odd sense at times – throughout the play, in fact – that everyone but the reader is under the wizard’s spell. This may be the point — after all, the characters of The Tempest are under Prospero’s spell; the audience is not.

As far as characters go, the most finely  and truly developed character in Hag-Seed is Felix. Why, he wonders at one point, did he ever think himself capable of playing Prospero? “So many contradictions to Prospero! Entitled aristocrat, modest hermit? Wise old mage, revengeful old poop? Irritable and unreasonable, kindly and caring? Sadistic, forgiving?”

Felix, too, is all of these things and it’s in the complexity of his character that the book takes its darkest, most interesting turns. Felix both believes and doesn’t believe that he lives with his ghostly daughter. Sometimes he’s sincere, but sometimes he’s clearly acting, particularly when he’s with Estelle.

When he activates his plot and traps his enemies in a psychedelic hell of an interactive theatre experience, he believes his revenge is justified. But in at least one aspect – convincing an adversary his son has died – the viciousness is magnified exponentially by the fact that Felix knows what it’s like to lose a child.

Hag-Seed is at its enchanting best when Atwood dwells on Felix’s relationship with his lost daughter. Is Miranda really there in the cottage, or not? What does it mean to be real, to be there, in the context of a play populated by spirits?

He looks forward to seeing Miranda in the evenings, when he returns to his cottage after rehearsals: “At first he thinks she isn’t there, and his heart plummets. Then he detects her: She’s over by their table, in the gathering shadows. She’s waiting by the chess set, ready to resume their lesson.”

In The Tempest, Miranda is trapped as surely as Ariel and Caliban. By the end of Hag-Seed, it’s begun to dawn on Felix that if Ariel longs to be released to the elements, perhaps the lost girl in his cottage longs for the same.

Emily St John Mandel

About the author / Emily St John Mandel

She is the author of four critically-acclaimed novels, most recently Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. She writes for The New York Times.

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