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book review

Margaret Atwood crafts skillful retelling of ‘Tempest’ in modern prison

Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press via AP/The Canadian Press via AP

The coup is swift and merciless — for all its nefariousness, admirably planned and carried out. One minute Felix Phillips is the reigning artistic director of Canada’s Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, knee-deep in preparations for his tantalizingly ambitious upcoming production of “The Tempest.” He, of course, will play Prospero, the sorcerer duke; he already has his magic cloak.

Then a couple of security guys appear and hustle him out of the building to his car. Felix’s scoundrelly second-in-command, a smooth talker named Tony Price, has pitted the festival board against him and taken his job. There will be no “Tempest.” Thanks to a political ally Tony has cleverly cultivated, there will be nowhere else for Felix to take his talents, either. Like Prospero, Felix is abruptly cut adrift, exiled.


Margaret Atwood’s “Hag-Seed,” the beautifully executed, bracingly original fourth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, is a contemporary retelling of “The Tempest.” Felix is Atwood’s Prospero — and, just like Shakespeare’s, he is the widowed father to a beloved daughter named Miranda, who is ever by his side. But Felix’s little girl, a toddler, has recently died. It’s her ghost that comforts him during the dozen years he spends living in a hovel under an assumed name, fostering his grief and grievances. He is not entirely in touch with his sanest self.

When the chance for revenge appears, dropped into Felix’s lap over lunch one day, he knows exactly how “The Tempest” will help him attain it. By then, he has spent a few years teaching drama to inmates at Fletcher Correctional, a medium-security prison. The pay is a pittance; only the woman who hired him knows his real name and what he used to be. To the others he is the popular and esteemed Mr. Duke, who has gamely directed the prisoners in experimental productions of “Richard III,” “Macbeth,” and “Julius Caesar.”


Still “The Tempest’’ proves a hard sell to the actors, even with his usual promise of smuggled-in cigarettes as a reward. “There’s no fight scene, and it’s got, like, a fairy in it,” says an inmate named Leggs.

The play, which has vengeance woven into its plot, is the perfect vehicle for retribution. Tony and some others involved in the sabotage of Felix’s career are planning a visit to Fletcher, where they won’t be expecting him. He intends to offer them — OK, subject them to — a highly interactive immersive-theater experience. What could be more au courant?

“If you can fix up what I have in mind,” Felix says to 8Handz, the nimble hacker cast as Ariel who works the scheme’s technological magic, “I’m pretty sure I can get you early parole.” We cringe at the manipulation, a perfect twist on Prospero’s.

Yet Felix, devoted to his students, isn’t completely selfish. He sees “The Tempest” as a story about prisons, so it is partly also about transcending those prisons. He worries, though, that one character — the slave Caliban, whom Prospero calls “hag-seed,” among other vile names — might prove painful for them. But when he asks which characters they would like to play, Caliban is the most popular. They think he’s gotten a raw deal. They even feel bad for his dead mom, the witch Sycorax. Who ever has a kind thought for Sycorax?

This is the vivid, surprising multidimensionality of “Hag-Seed,” a very human comedy that keeps company with one ghost, a gaggle of convicts with assorted handy skills, a trio of Disney princesses, a fearsomely athletic former dancer with the Canadian troupe Kidd Pivot, and one bereaved father for whom it is past time to find a way back into life.


What makes the book thrilling, and hugely pleasurable, is how closely Atwood hews to Shakespeare even as she casts her own potent charms, rap-composition included. (”He call me a poison, a filth, a slave, / He prison me up to make me behave, / But I’m Hag-Seed!”) It’s partly an intellectual game, this business of adapting his play, and you can feel her turning it over in her hands, considering it and its characters in every possible permutation. She looks with the same intensity at each detail of her contemporary milieu.

Like a masterful director, she has found ways to animate “The Tempest” afresh — even, remarkably, the parts that are always deadly boring — yet she has also traced glittering new patterns in its air. Where the drama’s action ends, this suspenseful, satisfying novel keeps going for a bit, with boisterous humor, dark pragmatism, and a vigorously defiant spirit. It more than meets the challenge Atwood clearly set for herself: to escape the play.

Part Shakespeare, part Atwood, “Hag-Seed” is a most delicate monster — and that’s “delicate” in the 17th-century sense. It’s delightful.


By Margaret Atwood

Hogarth, 301 pp., $25


Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at