Hag-seed: Entering Atwood’s Tempest


Years ago, for Father’s Day, instead of our family going out to eat, I chose for us to go see a theater in the park’s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It was a nice June night, we had a picnic that we enjoyed on a blanket as we watched the play unfold all around us. It was a clever production that moved at a brisk pace. To my delight, my older son, who was  quite young at the time, never got bored or complained. Instead, I watched him get caught up in the story of Prospero with all of his magic and desire for revenge. The play would stick with him because, this year in high school, when the teacher for his public speaking class told them they would all have to memorize a soliloquy from Shakespeare, he picked Prospero’s final speech:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint. Now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell,
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
I was thrilled that the play had remained in his imagination so much that he really wanted to learn it. As he was memorizing it and going over the words with me, we would talk about what the lines meant, the arc that the character of Prospero had undergone from revenge to forgiveness, and of what we remembered from that production of the play.
The Tempest is thought to be the last play that William Shakespeare wrote alone and is considered to contain some of his finest and most mature poetry. The play is a mixture of romance, a courtly masque, commedia dell’arte, as well as the supernatural found in fairy tales.  Shakespeare was brilliant in his ability to balance all of these elements and make the play both art and easily accessible to his audience, which contained a good mix of socio-economic and education levels. Unlike some of his earlier plays, there was no direct source for the inspiration for The Tempest.
There are, however, different sources that inspired elements of the play. One is the story of a shipwreck and of the mysterious island came from a recent, sensational event in 1610 when two pamphlets were printed entitled A Discovery of the Barmudas and A Declaration of the Estate of a Colony in Virginia about the ship-wreck of the Sea Venture off the islands of Bermuda. It gained notoriety when a year later, William Strachey, who was one of those who were on the Sea Venture, wrote his own report about what he claimed happened. A number of his phrases found their way into Shakespeare’s play. Another influence was John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays, in particular one entitled “Of the Cannibals,” which shaped the “savage” character of Caliban. Shakespeare wrote The Tempest for the Court of King James I, and was performed at a Court wedding. The play shows Shakespeare at the height of his talent and mastery of blank-verse form, particularly in the speech “Our revels now are ended.”
For those unfamiliar with the play, the story revolves around Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, who is stranded on a remote island with his daughter Miranda. There he involves himself in the study of magic, which he uses to create a tempest, causing the ship containing his usurping brother Antonio, King Alonso (along with his son Ferdinand and brother, Sebastian), as well as Stephano and Trinculo to believe they are shipwrecked and end up on the island, inhabited by Prospero, his daughter, the “monster” Caliban and the spirit Ariel (both of whom Prospero has enslaved). The play unfolds as Prospero uses his magic to separate the men and three plot lines alternate throughout the play.
The Tempest
Is it any wonder then, that when she was asked to adapt a Shakespearean play into a novel by Hogarth Shakespeare Project, Margaret Atwood not only jumped at the chance but chose this magical work? When interviewed for Mother Jones, Atwood was asked why this play, to which she replied, “The characters have always been favorites of mine. It is one of his meditations on art – what it does.”  Like Shakespeare, Margaret Atwood is a marvelous weaver of story. She, too, has a mastery of language, plot and character. In her modern retelling, her Prospero is a theater director by the name Felix Phillips. When the novel begins, Felix is rehearsing his own production of The Tempest when he is suddenly fired by his once trusted, right-hand man Tony. Taking clues from the play itself, Atwood noticed that the source material contained nine prisons in the text. This led her to having her own Prospero take a job teaching Shakespeare to the inmates and directing them in the Bard’s plays.
“In a play that ends with the words “set me free,” you have to take that into account,” Atwood said, “What is it Prospero needs to be set free from? Why does he feel so guilty? That epilogue has always been extremely intriguing to me. I started with the questions it raised and worked backward.”
What Margaret Atwood manages to do is create a tale that is filled with its own magic and plot twists, especially when Tony, who’s now a politician, will be coming to the prison for a photo opportunity because of the prison’s productions of Shakespeare (not knowing that his old boss is behind it – as Felix is working under the name Mr. Duke, a clever wink to Shakespeare’s love of fake identities). Like Shakespeare, Atwood is a magician with words and she uses them deftly to tell a story that moves at lively pace. The reader is drawn in and, like a child reading a fairy tale, finds themselves asking, “What’s going to happen next?” Even though we come to this novel knowing the tale of The Tempest, we find that we are unsure how close to the text Atwood will be.
Will this also be a tale of forgiveness and being set free as the characters were in Shakespeare’s play?
On Writers and Writing
In her book On Writers and Writing, Margaret Atwood wrote about Shakespeare and The Tempest:

Prospero uses his arts – magic arts, arts of illusion – not just for entertainment, though he does some of that as well, but for the purposes of moral and social improvement.

“That being said, it must also be said that Prospero plays God. If you don’t happen to agree with him – as Caliban doesn’t – you’d call him a tyrant, as Caliban does. With a slight twist, Prospero might be the Grand Inquisitor, torturing people for their own good. You might also call him a usurper – he’s stolen the island from Caliban, just as his own brother has stolen the dukedom from him; and you might call him a sorcerer, as Caliban also terms him. We – the audience – are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, and to see him as a benevolent despot. Or we are inclined most of the time. But Caliban is not without insight.”

Just as Prospero lost his dukedom due to his own negligence, so, too, has Felix lost not only his job as the head of Makeshiweg, a prominent Canadian theater festival, as well as the life of his young daughter, Miranda. Will Felix, like Prospero, come to realize his own faults?

What Atwood does is draw upon the fact that The Tempest is a play about putting on a play.  The action takes place on an island and, through the use of magic, is filled with special effects. She deftly uses all of theses elements to her advantage in telling her own story within this brilliant novel that also deals with obsession and betrayal, grief and loss, and lots of magic.

Yet why doesn’t she name her novel after Prospero? Why, instead, does Atwood name it Hag-seed, the name Prospero curses at Caliban? That is for the reader to find out.

Even for someone who has never read Shakespeare’s The TempestHag-seed is easy to enjoy, but I highly recommend reading the play first to truly appreciate this marvelous magical novel.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood’s official website:

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