Who — or what — is “Shakespeare”? By 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, even the lesser known plays such as Cymbeline have been subject to multiple revisions, resettings, and reinterpretations that have pushed the boundaries of what “Shakespeare” is. But such liberties are still controversial — take, for example, Emma Rice’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe, and her subsequent exit from the institution. The Globe was established as an academic project in historically informed performance, and Rice’s Bollywood-themed, sound-system-beclad Shakespeare has been jettisoned from its wattle-and-daub walls, throwing the theatrical world into turmoil. There are two sides to this debate: Rice’s Midsummer was fun, contemporary, and both a critical and financial success. It drew in new audiences, and Shakespeare’s familiar text had the dust shimmied off it. Shakespeare — particularly the comedies — needs fresh perspectives and updating if the plays are to survive in a competitive artistic climate. On the other hand, the Globe was set up to do something very specific, and Rice’s vision for Midsummer was about as far from its original raison d’être as one could imagine (and inserting speakers required changes to the building itself). Underpinning the entire debate is the question — should Shakespeare change with the times, or is there still room for historically informed performance?
Into this cultural fracas enters Hogarth Press’s Shakespeare series, inviting contemporary novelists to reinterpret Shakespeare’s plays. The publishing house falls firmly on Rice’s side of the debate, stating that the series continues a tradition of Shakespeare reinterpretation that stretches over four centuries. Following Howard Jacobson, Jeanette Winterson, and Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is the fourth in the series, tackling The Tempest. It’s named after Caliban — ‘Hag-seed’ is one of Caliban’s names in Tempest. So when the book landed on my desk I was expecting a radical reinterpretation that leapt from Shakespeare’s springboard into territories unknown, exploring the gaps and spaces in one of Shakespeare’s most ambiguous plays, newly told from Caliban’s perspective.
The book is, however, quite a bit less daring than I hoped. It tells the story of Felix Phillips, who is usurped from his position as the Makeshiweg theatre’s Artistic Director, and goes into exile. Whilst mourning the loss of his daughter, Miranda, he begins teaching Shakespeare as part of a literary project in prisons, all the while plotting revenge on the . The plot of Tempest is transferred into the present day, told from Prospero’s point of view.
The story flows along in Atwood’s characteristically captivating prose, and is mostly a pleasure to read. Her rendering of Felix attempting to come to terms with his daughter’s death is especially poignant, capturing the heart-rending loneliness that accompanies this kind of loss. His memories of his daughter both push him to the brink of madness and simultaneously pull him back from it, perfectly encapsulating the obsessive, calculating personality that I associate with Shakespeare’s Prospero. The first half of the novel is also a delightfully tongue-in-cheek meta-critique of postmodern theatre, playfully poking fun at the seriousness with which Felix plans his fountains of glitter and capes made from stuffed toys. It’s a formidable literary sleight of hand that allows Atwood to tell the story from Felix’s perspective, whilst maintaining a humorously critical awareness of his many shortcomings.
The premise is also politically timely, revolving as it does around a teaching programme in a prison. But this was, for me, where the novel started to lose its edge. We never get to hear from the prisoners themselves, and the inmates often appear more as caricatures than as sympathetic characters in their own right. They are constantly, as Atwood’s Miranda disapprovingly reminds us, seen through Felix’s eyes, and as a result there are no real surprises in how the book plays out, either in plot or character development. The slightly cringeworthy rap sections, delivered by the inmates, read clunkily, clearly stylistically out of place in the rest of the prose. This is a valiant attempt to update Shakespeare’s language — and I agree in principle that Shakespeare’s stories and characters can withstand new idioms. But they read most peculiarly in a novel told through the eyes of a man whose attitude towards the inmates swings between didactic and patronising.
Furthermore, the self-containment of the rap episodes accentuates Atwood’s uncomfortable handling of race, which is especially noticeable in a rewrite of a play that has received so much attention from postcolonial perspectives. These interpretations are referenced throughout by Atwood — not least by naming the book after Caliban — and Caliban’s race is briefly discussed, alongside his right to the land which Prospero has seized. But ultimately telling the story from Prospero/Felix’s perspective leaves Hag-Seed firmly in territory that predates these critical readings, as does her casting. Atwood’s characters are either white civilians or non-white criminals. Her inmates may be creative and empathetic, but the way in which she describes them (through Felix) is worth quoting, as it encapsulates why I am uneasy with the book as a whole:
Leggs. About thirty, Mixed background, Irish and black. … WonderBoy. Looks twenty-five, probably older. Scandinavian name. Appealing, clean-cut, handsome … Krampus. Maybe forty-five. Mennonite background. Long horse-face.
WonderBoy, one of the few white inmates, is described as ‘Appealing, clean-cut, handsome’, and beyond being ‘Scandinavian’ his background is not touched on — quite a contrast to the derogatory ‘Long horse-face’, and later ‘Round-faced, pale’, that Felix uses to describe a man of Chinese descent. In this context, the rap episodes appear less as genuine creative expression, but more as a signal of a generic non-white culture. Because so much time is devoted to Felix and his concerns, the inmates are reduced to pithy stereotypes, as is the music that they make. Atwood flourishes when she is rewriting the play as an allegory about artistic creation, but falls short when it comes to the racial implications of Shakespeare’s text. Maybe the crude racial binary is supposed to be obvious, to make the reader shocked or uncomfortable deliberately. But when told entirely through Felix’s eyes, there’s not enough critical distance for this to be convincing. There is a veritable void where Atwood’s Caliban should be; beyond the title, his character and the critical readings centred around him seem to have had little impact on the novel at all.
At the close of the book, Atwood offers some intriguing possibilities for the afterlives of the Tempest’s characters. Presented through the conceit of the inmates’ final assessments, she speculates on what happens to Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, and Caliban after the curtain falls, and the magic of the island has faded. These were, for me, some of most thought-provoking sections, and I rather wish that the novel had been based on one of these afterlives and had taken the opportunity to go to places that Shakespeare didn’t. Perhaps the tale could have been narrated by Atwood’s cunning Caliban, or feisty Miranda. There are so many theatrical interpretations that play with the boundaries of the Tempest’s text (the current technologically-focused RSC production being just one) that the novel’s format seems to invite even further expansion and freedom to bring Prospero’s island into the twenty-first century. Atwood manages to replicate the inconclusive, multi-faceted end to the drama, but I closed the book feeling that I’d not travelled anywhere new. Hag-Seed is a beautiful rewrite, not a visionary reinterpretation.
Hag-Seed is available to buy in hardback, RRP £16.99.