Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. I was keen to read it as I have a soft spot for a revenge tale, and vengeance is the marrow of The Tempest.
Shakespeare’s Tempest is relatively straight-forward on the surface. Prospero, sorcerer and rightful Duke of Milan, usurped by his brother Antonio, has been living on an island for 12 years with his daughter Miranda and two servants: the brutish, rapacious Caliban and the magical fairy Ariel. A conjured tempest shipwrecks Antonio, his accomplice King Alonso of Naples, Alonso’s would-be usurping brother Sebastian and honourable son Ferdinand, plus assorted family members, lords and courtiers, on the island. The scattered survivors interacts with the islanders: Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love; Caliban conspires with two courtiers to stage a (failed) coup; and Antonio, Alonso and Sebastian are harassed by Ariel. Prospero gains control of all of his enemies and forgives them, betroths Miranda to Ferdinand, frees/pardons his servants, readies all the humans for departure and then, having abandoned his sorcery, asks the audience to free him from the island with a bout of applause.
In Hag-Seed, a failed (betrayed) actor, Felix Phillips, inhabits the role of Prospero both in the novel and in his in-novel staging of The Tempest in a men’s correctional facility (the equivalent of the island). Atwood’s novel spends a great deal of time setting the stage, outlining how Felix was usurped from his artistic director role at the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival as he tried to stage the Tempest, lost both his career and his family, and ended up with a single opportunity for revenge from his diminished place as a prison drama teacher in rural Ontario. I will not highlight any more plot details for fear of spoilers. Needless to say, there are variations from the play – Miranda being the biggest one – but it is very neatly done and it follows the play beautifully on both levels: within the novel and within Felix’s prison staging of the same play.
A few years back, I was lucky to get tickets to see Margaret Atwood discuss the novel in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, and she said that when she was approached about the project, she insisted on The Tempest. Not any of the other, perhaps better known plays, not Macbeth (that is Jo Nesbø’s project), not Hamlet (Gillian Flynn). Her first and only choice was the Tempest. Atwood said during the event that she chose the title of the book, partly because it is an interesting word: a mix of the feminine (hag) and the masculine (seed). It comes directly from the play itself, referring to Caliban, the villain.
“Toads, beetles, bats light on you.
Filth as thou art.
The red plague rid you.
Hag-seed. All the infections that the sun sucks up…”
The name fits the book. While Felix/Prospero is a great character – firmly the protagonist that the audience roots for – it is Caliban who is the focus point of Atwood’s novel. Son of the witch Sycorax, he is a wonderfully problematic character. On the one hand, he is monstrous: by birth, by looks, by actions. In the play, he seeks to violently overthrow Prospero, to rape Miranda, and his dialogue is littered with curses. On the other hand, his main cause for hating Prospero is that he has been forced into slavery, which is more than a reasonable complaint. So we have an unlikeable character whose actions are distasteful but whose grievances are real. One can argue that Caliban, downtrodden and abused, unable to free himself, is first made a victim, and then, consequently, a villainous character. The two are irrevocably linked.
As an aside, Caliban’s mother Sycorax is interesting in her own right. A powerful sorceress, exiled from Algiers and once ruler of the island, she is dead before the play starts. While absent and mute, her echoes can still be heard throughout the play. She has been associated with Ovid’s Medea, and analysis of her character is often subject to postcolonial and feminist interpretation. While she is a malevolent antagonist, often shown as a contrast to Prospero, in actions they remain remarkably similar: they control their surroundings as they please through magical power. This similarity is not a defence of Sycorax, but rather perhaps a damnation of Prospero. In my view, Felix is a more benevolent character than his predecessor Prospero. At the very least, he does not incarcerate or enslave anyone (except, arguably, himself in a prison of grief and revenge). Sycorax in Hag-Seed thus has less of a role and is mostly absent from the retelling. However, her son, Caliban, is present.
So we have Caliban, the hag-seed, the victim and the villain, the titular character. And in Hag-Seed, he seems to be nowhere and everywhere at the same time. There is no direct parallel to Caliban the character in the book, unlike Felix clearly being Prospero. Instead, we see Caliban in the prisoners. They get him, they re-write his lines into music (rap), and they are aware that they, collectively, are Caliban. All of them, Calibans. All of them, Hag-Seeds. Perhaps all of them victims as well as villains? By making Felix less oppressive than Prospero, we are allowed to see a more humane version of Caliban. As characters, most of the prisoners are described only in the broadest of terms. The result is, in my view, Caliban as a faceless collective of people that have been failed and have failed themselves. But there are enough glimpses of humanity and growth that Hag-Seed’s collective Caliban is never the villain of the Tempest. This collective Caliban is given the chance to change throughout the story, while the original Caliban stays the villain until the end of his failed coup, upon which he slinks away from the stage, embarrassed. In Shakespeare, Caliban’s final lines, delivered after his failure, are “I’ll be wise hereafter. And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass…” After this, Caliban disappears from the story altogether, and all that remains is the restoration of Prospero’s glory and position.
This brings us to the end, where Felix, just like Prospero, retains the privilege of being released from the prison as the play concludes. However, Atwood make one telling change at this last point: she has Felix help win an early release for one of the inmates, 8Handz, and lets Felix support 8Handz after his release. Caliban’s story, through 8Handz, does not end with the island, but with freedom. So while most of the prisoners, like Caliban, remain imprisoned on the island, there is hope for the Calibans of Hag-Seed. Also, it is clear from Atwood’s narrative that the root of this change lies within the privilege of Felix and how he chooses to wield it. Caliban in either version is unable to free himself, stuck within a system that he can’t beat. He can’t escape the island on his own. Shakespeare’s Prospero leaves Caliban on the island, king over no-one and in many respects a prisoner still. Atwood’s Felix, on the other hand, alters the chain of events and releases Caliban from the island. And that is a lovely change.