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Margaret Atwood’s new book Hag-Seed proves the value of adapting Shakespeare

18th Annual LA Times Festival Of Books - Day 1 Photo by Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images for LA Times

Adapting Shakespeare into present-day language is always an odd gambit: All you’re left with, really, is the plot, and who reads Shakespeare for the plot? Most of us read his work specifically for the language, for the lyricism and range that had his contemporaries calling him "honey-tongued Shakespeare."

Still, there must be some pleasure in Shakespearean adaptations, or we wouldn’t keep coming back to them — and we do keep coming back to them. For proof, look to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which enlists an assortment of literary luminaries to adapt and retell various Shakespearean plays as contemporary novels. It’s set to conclude in 2021 with a take on Hamlet by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn.

The Hogarth Shakespeare series’ most recent offing is Hag-Seed, a retelling of The Tempest by Margaret Atwood. Reading it, I began to get a handle on the appeal of Shakespeare adaptations. Part of it is an intellectual game, the satisfaction of recognizing a familiar figure in an unfamiliar context: Oh, Estelle is always twinkling because she’s playing the role of the auspicious star from the shipwreck.

The other part is that a really good adaptation, like Atwood’s, can do the same thing as a really good and inventive staging of a play: It can tease out nuances and resonances from its source material, so that you begin to see the original work in an entirely new light.

Atwood reads The Tempest as a play about prisons, and viewed through that lens, all sorts of new resonances emerge.

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That’s not to say that Hag-Seed is perfect. Most troublingly, its title suggests that it’s all about Caliban, but the novel fails to live up to that promise in any compelling way. Still, Atwood’s thoughtfulness and playfulness keep Hag-Seed from ever getting boring.

Hag-Seed sees a production of The Tempest going up at a prison

Atwood helpfully includes a summary of The Tempest at the end of Hag-Seed, if you’ve forgotten your high school English class. Briefly: Prospero is the duke of Milan, but instead of ruling he spends all his time studying magic, so his brother Antonio usurps him, sending Prospero and his daughter Miranda to a magical island. There, Prospero enslaves the spirit Ariel and the monster Caliban and forces them to do his bidding.

When a shipwreck strands Antonio and assorted other characters on Prospero’s island, Prospero uses his magic and his servants to create a magical play for the visitors, one that punishes the wicked and rewards the good, and restores Prospero to his dukedom.

In Atwood’s Hag-Seed, Prospero is a widower theater director named Felix, and his usurper is his erstwhile business partner, Tony. For a time they worked together on a Shakespeare festival, but after Felix’s young daughter Miranda dies of meningitis, Felix’s productions grow ever more avant-garde: Pericles with aliens, A Winter’s Tale with vampires, and the like. Craftily, Tony uses the pretext to have Felix fired and take his place as the artistic director of the festival.

Felix, meanwhile, retires to a shack in the country, where he begins to half-imagine, half-hallucinate visions of Miranda lurking around him. In an attempt to keep his sanity, his takes a job teaching theater at a local prison. When he learns that Tony — now highly placed in the Canadian government — and his cronies will be visiting the prison to evaluate Felix’s program, he decides to stage The Tempest for them. But this production will be a fully immersive theatrical experience, one that will punish the wicked, reward the good, and get Felix his job back at the Shakespeare festival.

The novel cleverly casts the play itself as a a literal prison

It’s a bit of a leap from Shakespeare’s magical island to a prison, but it is, as Atwood points out through Felix’s lectures, one that’s justified by the text.

Felix has his students count the prisons in the play: the island holding Prospero and Miranda, Ariel in the oak tree, and so on. They count eight, but there are, Felix tells them, nine in total:

"It’s in the Epilogue," says Felix. "Prospero says to the audience, in effect, Unless you help me sail away, I’ll have to stay on the island — that is, he’ll be under an enchantment. He’ll be forced to re-enact his feelings of revenge, over and over. It would be like hell."

"I saw a horror movie like that," says 8Handz. "On Rotten Tomatoes."

"The last three words in the play are ‘set me free,’" says Felix. "You don’t say ‘set me free’ unless you’re not free. Prospero is a prisoner inside the play he himself has composed. There you have it: the ninth prison is the play itself."

Treating the play and the island as literal prisons lets Atwood treat Felix/Prospero’s enormous vengefulness and anger and grief and guilt as a prison in itself. She doubles Ariel and Miranda: As Felix goes to work, he keeps seeing the spirit of Miranda flitting about him. She whispers Ariel’s lines to him, and her ghost becomes Ariel’s "brave" and "tricksy" spirit, rendered out of Felix’s grief.

Grief is, ultimately, the engine on which Felix’s plot turns: grief and guilt over failing to save his daughter’s life. So when Felix, like Prospero, frees Ariel at the end of the book, he’s freeing the hallucinated Miranda as well, and liberating himself from his grief.

Unfortunately, Atwood fails to solve the problem of Caliban

All told, Hag-Seed is a marvelous and thoughtful adaptation. But it still leaves you with questions: Namely, why the title? "Hag-seed" is what Prospero calls Caliban when he curses him, because Caliban is the son of a witch. Yet there’s a certain emptiness in Atwood’s novel where Caliban should be.

Caliban is a troubling figure in The Tempest: He’s violent, and he tries to rape Miranda, but only after Prospero forcibly conquers his island and enslaves him. It’s hard to read The Tempest in a postcolonial era and not feel sympathetic to Caliban, especially when he has some of the most vividly poetic language in all of the play:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,

I cried to dream again.

Caliban’s poetry comes, we’re told, from Prospero, who taught him language — but that’s a mixed blessing. "You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse," says Caliban. "The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!"

In Hag-Seed, the prisoners who act in Felix’s play know exactly who they are: They are all Calibans. "We get him," they say. (None of them, I should note, try to rape anyone.) Enthusiastically, they rewrite Caliban’s speeches as raps, and while Atwood is an accomplished poet, it can be hard to read these scenes without feeling as though you are watching that scene from a '90s teen comedy where the English teacher sits backward in his chair and starts rapping a sonnet:

Ban-ban, Ca-Caliban,

Don’t need no master, I am not your man!

So stuff it up your hole, gimme back what you stole,

Tellin’ you it’s late, I’m fillin’ up with rage,

I’m gettin’ all set to go on a ram-page!

Beyond the clunky rap scenes, the prisoners are wholly underwritten. They’re a swell of voices ready to be educated by Felix, demanding more violence and sex in their Shakespeare until they learn, with guidance from their wise teacher, to appreciate the beauty of the Bard. Hag-Seed is not interested in doing any kind of character study on these prisoners; it is also not interested in offering a social commentary on the state of Canada’s prison system.

So why, with this gaping hole in the book where Caliban should be, does Caliban get the title? "There is a reason," Atwood has said, but it’s hard to see what it could be.

Yet, even with a less-than-compelling Caliban, Hag-Seed is a treat. It’s a beautifully constructed adaptation, one that stands on its own but is even richer when read against its source — and can, in turn, enrich its source material. It’s playful and thoughtful, and it singlehandedly makes a good argument for the value of adapting Shakespeare.