Felix is at the top of his game as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have amazed and confounded. Now he's staging a Tempest like no other: not only will it boost his reputation, it will heal emotional wounds. Or that was the plan. Instead, after an act of unforeseen treachery, Felix is living in exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his beloved lost daughter, Miranda. And brewing revenge. After 12 years revenge finally arrives in the shape of a theatre course at a nearby prison. Here Felix and his inmate actors will put on his Tempest and snare the traitors who destroyed him. It's magic! But will it remake Felix as his enemies fall?
Felix Phillips has been elbowed out of his job as artistic director of the well-endowed Makeshewig Theatrical Festival by a politically motivated underling. Other festival powers were not sorry to see Felix go as his productions had grown more and more bizarre. Bereft and still reeling from the death of both his wife and his three year-old daughter, Felix retires to a shack in the country and thinks on revenge. He spends a lot of time talking to Miranda, his daughter, who first comes with him in his imagination and then in spirit. Real or not real? Felix can see and hear her growing up. At some point in his twelve year exile, Felix takes over a project to teach theater to inmates in a nearby prison with resounding success. And when the time is right, he begins to produce The Tempest with a sub-plot to win revenge over the enemies who stole his life.
Felix is Prospero. We learn Atwood's interpretation of the play as he leads his players through their study and development of their parts. They write rap and learn dances, they devise costumes from plastic raincoats and Disney dolls, they curse only in the play's vernacular, they work in teams to understand their characters, they predict the way those characters' lives proceed after their video ends. Felix remembers earlier productions: "Watching the many faces watching their own faces as they pretended to be someone else - Felix found that strangely moving. For once in their lives, they loved themselves." It's redemptive. It's funny. It's tragic. It's magic. Many thanks, Early Reviewers, for allowing me to read this one now!
Did she update the plot successfully? Yes. Prospero’s island becomes a prison and Prospero is Felix Phillips a brilliant interpreter of Shakespeare who is fired from his position as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival. His Miranda is his daughter who died at the age of three but who is still present in his life as an essence (in his mind? in reality?) and who ages until she is 15 when the novel opens. Felix, now Mr. Duke, seeks revenge on the men who ended his career and they easily become Antonio, Alonso, Sebastian and the kind Gonzago. Caliban and Ariel? They have no parallel in Felix’s life yet. So the story, updated to 2013 Canada, works well, as have many other Shakespeare modern adaptions.
But that is only the first layer of this book. For Atwood sets the scene in a prison where Felix who is Prospero is directing The Tempest which is his story. His actors are the prisoners who sign up for his literacy course. These men, for the most part, are intelligent but without formal education. Felix opens up Shakespeare to them and the men put their unique spin on the play, taking the themes and viewing them through their own life experiences.
And here is where I became totally awed by Atwood’s achievement. She unlocks the Tempest through Felix’s teaching methods. I know this play and I figured that there was not much that she could tell me about the characters. I have seen the play in performance about twenty times from local productions to the RSC and Royal National Theater. I have a copy of The Tempest with Richard Burton playing Caliban to bring tears to the viewer’s eyes. Reading Hag-Seed, I felt as though I was meeting The Tempest for the first time.
Felix’s idea of teams for each character: The men discuss and decide what makes their characters tick and see that character through their own experiences. The Native-Canadian sees Caliban very differently than others on his team. Caliban has his land taken away and is made a slave. Some members of Team Antonio see him as a gangster; others as an opportunist. Team Ariel’s backstory actually brought tears to my eyes.
After the production the teams reveal what they believe happened to their characters. I don’t usually appreciate the afterstory of plays but in Hag-Seed it works because the conclusions are totally based on the text. Caliban’s story has more than one possible outcome and all are believable depending on the teller’s personal experience.
There is so much more. The music to complement the story (Caliban and the Hag-Seeds rappers!), The goddesses as Disney princess dolls. The importance of goblins.
The novel, like the play, has tragedy and comedy, revenge and redemption. I hope for two things: That the play will be adapted by the RSC and performed at the Swan Theater in Stratford and that Atwood adds another Man Booker Prize to her list of accolades.
Felix was once the artistic director of the prestigious Makeshiweg Festival before he was ousted by his scheming assistant, Tony. Aggrieved and kicked to the curb, Felix spends twelve years retreating from the public eye, nursing his bruised ego in noble exile, living like a hermit, until he comes upon an unlikely gig as the director of a prison theatre program at Fletcher Correctional. Professionally, it’s a fall from grace for him, but Felix graciously takes the job and performs as a teacher with gusto and genuine enthusiasm. Eventually he comes to some well-deserved renown and earns the admiration from the prison administration, even catching the eye of the upper echelons of government. He’s the charismatic English professor we all wished we had.
Meanwhile, we learn that being fired and backstabbed by his peers isn’t the only pain Felix has been nursing. He carries the burden of a bigger tragedy, too, namely the sudden deaths of his wife and then daughter Miranda at the tender age of three. The death of his daughter hits him really hard. Throughout his isolated existence, he regularly hallucinates and has conversations with her conjured ‘ghost’. She even ages and grows up alongside him, becoming a young teen by the time Felix finds himself working at Fletcher. Felix isn’t crazy; he knows Miranda isn’t real, and yet she stays lovingly by his side, as real as can be.
Through a series of fortuitous twists, Felix finds himself in a position to mete out justice to those who’ve wronged him. He’ll do it with the help of the Fletcher Correctional Players. Here’s the elusive chance he’s been waiting for. The staging of The Tempest will be his retirement piece de resistance, his reason for living again, and a much needed blood-letting for all those wrongs.
Much of the fun in reading Hag-Seed is in seeing the antics of a bunch of hard-knock convicts get ready for their theatre performance and learning how to unpack Shakespeare. At times the plotting can feel a bit like a generic feel-good, Dead Poets Society-kind of redemption story, but Atwood, to her credit, manages to elevate it with her golden prose and talent for pacing a story around a satisfying character arc. It helps that Felix is a wonderful teacher, a well-armored theatre nerd, and that his actors are enthusiastic and have hearts of gold. There’s a rule that Felix puts out to his students: no curse words except those used in the play. The classroom banter scenes are filled with expressions like ‘whoreson’ and ‘malignant thing’ and ‘poxy’ and ‘red plague’.
When Felix eventually gets his chance to confront his enemies, it’s no longer just personal. The literacy project that makes the prison theatre group possible is now under threat to be axed in budget cuts. To make it all fall into place, Atwood really stretches the imagination, but it’s still fun to see it all play out so brazenly hitch-free. Does Felix get his revenge? Will the Fletcher Correctional Players keep going? I won’t say, though the actual play should give you a hint of what’s to come.
Hag-Seed does miss some big opportunities, though. The book’s title makes a reference to the monster character Caliban, but Caliban in the book gets little treatment in Atwood’s retelling. Imagine the possibilities of unpacking Caliban—who has in modern times become a revisionist symbol of postcolonial rebellion and rage—in essentially a revenge plot acted out inside a prison system. I feel like Atwood could have deepened the retelling that way.
After the final performance, and in the aftermath of Felix’s revenge, the participants give their final presentations on what they think is the fate of their assigned characters. It’s their last class assignment. They are asked to imagine a future for them. What they each come up with is poignant and breathes new life into the retelling of the play.
Hag-Seed is Atwood’s modern spin on The Tempest, the genre-defying tragicomedy that is believed to be the bard’s final play. In it, the betrayed sorcerer Prospero, trapped on a deserted island with his young daughter Miranda, erects a storm at sea to exact revenge on those who have wronged him. Yet, Prospero is no innocent victim that audiences wholeheartedly root for. He is deeply flawed- controlling, ego-maniacal, petty, callous, and cruel at times. Throughout the work, he plays puppet master with the elements and life on the island, eventually achieving his desire, but is still not altogether content and seeks forgiveness and redemption from the gods (and the audience) for the tortures he has inflicted upon others. In Atwood’s spin, Felix, a disgruntled former artistic director, well-known for his extreme interpretations and performances of classic productions, plays our modern Prospero, in all his narcissistic glory.
As a protagonist, Felix is not an easy character to like, nor should he be. Like Prospero, he must grow from a completely self-absorbed master of his art into a being who makes decisions based on the well-being of others. Thus, the further one gets in Hag-Seed, the more one comes around to old Felix. What is particularly endearing, especially to my book club crew of English teachers, is Felix’s transformation from ivory-tower elite artist to humbled prison theater teacher, thereby beginning his substantial character arc and creating another “play within a play” for readers.
If you’ve never read The Tempest, fear not. Atwood does a great job of referencing it throughout the novel in a way that is helpful without being irritating and even includes a full 5-page plain English synopsis in the back of the book, for those who are so inclined. Though this was not my favorite Atwood novel- I absolutely adored Alias Grace and was thoroughly creeped out by Oryx and Crake– it is still quite good and I would certainly recommend it, even outside of literary buff circles.
One problem with Shakespeare adaptations, is that the plots are so unlikely that it requires a certain suspension of disbelief, which we aren’t accustomed to in the modern age. Atwood makes this a little easier by setting the story in a theatrical setting, making over-the-top drama by various characters seem more natural.
Felix Phillips is our Prospero, and the center of this book, starting the story as the Artistic Director of a regional theater company. Atwood has fun describing Felix’s artistic visions:
“…the playgoers and even the patrons had grumbled from time to time. The almost-naked, freely bleeding Lavinia in Titus was too upsettingly graphic, they’d whined; though, as Felix had pointed out, more than justified by the text. Why did Pericles have to be staged with spaceships and extraterrestrials instead of sailing ships and foreign countries, and why present the moon goddess Artemis with the head of a praying mantis.”
Felix loses his job, due to the conniving of Tony, (Antonio); his assistant to whom he has given much power and little oversight. He ends up teaching Shakespeare to inmates in a nearby prison. This leads to many fun scenes, as Felix allows his students to swear, but only if they take their swear words from the Shakespeare play they are studying.
But despite all these antic events; there is a serious side to Hag-Seed. It’s a story of love and loss; revenge and redemption, and in Atwood’s hands, it is touching as well as hilarious.
The modern retelling is brilliantly done, following the motifs of the original without forcing it. Atwood even manages to add ideas about the original play and the value of educating prisoners. And she organizes her story into five acts.
This novel would be satisfying even for those unfamiliar with [The Tempest]. As Felix is going through prison security, he thinks: "It is the words that should concern you...That's the real danger. Words don't show up on scanners." Atwood recognizes the depth of ideas and the lovely language perfectly. A wonderful homage to the Bard.
Sadly, the cleverness of the plot does not make up for the thinness of the characterization. I love Margaret Atwood's work and was disappointed by this fluffy take on a classic.
This was a mostly light-hearted retelling of The Tempest, and I like that Atwood managed to include a play within a play by staging The Tempest itself at the prison--how very Shakespearean of her. The prisoners themselves were affable and sympathetic, if somewhat indistinguishable, while the politicians were, of course, buffoons. Felix is a bit of a pathetic character, but Atwood deepens the story by adding the ghost of his daughter to the cast of characters. If you don't know much about The Tempest before you begin, you will after you finish, as Atwood mixes in plenty of literary criticism. While somewhat gimmicky, and therefore feeling a trifle forced, this was overall an entertaining read.
Margaret Atwood's modern retelling of The Tempest doesn't feel constrained by Shakespeare's plot. It's imaginative and suspenseful, with just a touch of the supernatural that leaves readers wondering if it's real or imagined. Readers unfamiliar with Shakespeare's original will learn the basic plot along with the Fletcher Correctional Players. The epilogue provides a summary of the play. Atwood's skill as a literary critic infuses the story as Felix and the cast think about and discuss the characters and their motives, make staging decisions, and adapt the script for their audience and setting. This novel will please both Atwood fans and Shakespeare fans. Enthusiastically recommended.
This review is based on an electronic advance reading copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley.
What Atwood has accomplished here is original, humorous, magical and absolutely delightful. She writes rap songs performed in the play, reimagines lines and characters, updates the dialogue and puts on a play, with a few surprises, that I would love to attend. The characters are amazing, lessons are learned and friendships are made. Absolutely brilliant in my estimation.
ARC from publisher.
So, how did Margaret Atwood approach the assignment of reimagining The Tempest, that complex tale of deceit, magic, revenge, and forgiveness? By jumping in with both hands and both feet to produce Hag-Seed, which is, for the most part, an effort of remarkable creativity. One of the challenges that comes with updating this particular piece is that The Tempest can actually be viewed as a play nested within another play. In the production itself, Prospero, who has been cheated out of his rightful title as Duke of Milan and stranded on a remote island with his young daughter Miranda for 12 long years, uses some good fortune along with his magical powers to create the illusions necessary (i.e., the second play) to exact revenge on his enemies and create a happy ending for Miranda.
In , Atwood manages to take this artifice to the next level by employing a play-within-a-play-within-a-play format. Felix, the artistic director of a regional theater company, has been ignominiously deposed by his scheming assistant and banishes himself to the Canadian wilderness, comforted only by the memory of his daughter who died at a tragically young age. He reemerges from his hermitic existence some years later to teach drama classes to the inmates of a nearby correctional facility. Providence supplies the opportunity for revenge when his arch enemy, who has now risen to a position of power in the government, visits the prison to observe a production of The Tempest that Felix is staging with the convicts. So, Felix—who is the modern Prospero in the story—assumes the role of Prospero in the play in order to create the ruse needed to execute his real-life revenge in the manner of, well, Prospero!
If that sounds convoluted—or, at least, overly plotted—it really isn’t. In fact, Hag-Seed was an engaging and satisfying reading experience, although one that was very different in tone from the author’s past work that I know (e.g., The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace). For one thing, this novel has a tidy, feel-good ending in which the nice people win and the bad people lose. This final section, where the imprisoned actors offer their imagined versions of what happens to the characters in the play after they leave the island, is actually the strongest part of the book. Conversely, the front-end of the story in which the author provides details of Felix’s 12-year exile was cumbersome and somewhat implausible (which may be why Shakespeare skipped over this part altogether in the original tale). Overall, while it may never rank near the top of Atwood’s considerable catalog of work, Hag-Seed is recommended for its inventiveness and stylish word play. I mean, where else are you going to see the monster Caliban (i.e., the Hag-Seed of the title) breaking off hip-hop lyrics backed by his own troupe of dancers?
Hag-Seed is a retelling of The Tempest, or more specifically, of the staging of The Tempest. Atwood does her usual great job of creating a cast of misfits to put on the play. The setting is a literacy and arts program at the local medium security prison. The bitter washed up director is dreaming of revenge on the ex-board members of the Shakespeare Festival he used to lead and who are now politicians with the power to kill the funding of the prison program. The actors are all cons with records of embezzlement, hacking, assault, drugs, scamming, etc. In short, actors. (One of the epigrams quotes David Thomson’s Why Acting Matters: “…the actor is often said to be a shady or disreputable character”)
I would say that you will enjoy this book regardless of whether or not you are a Shakespeare fan, but especially if you are already familiar with Atwood’s books. And if you are a Shakespeare fan, you will appreciate the thought and ingenuity that Atwood put into this. The Bard himself would be impressed, methinks.
Note: This book was reviewed as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.
He’d chosen the plays carefully. He’d begun with Julius Caesar, continued with Richard II, and followed that with Macbeth. Power struggles, treacheries, crimes: these subjects were immediately grasped by his students, since in their own ways they were experts in them.
But this year, he’s plotting his revenge with a production of The Tempest.
Atwood’s research into both the techniques of Shakespearean acting and directing as well as prison college programs teaching literature and drama serves the novel well. Her details of prison bureaucracy and regulations and the challenges of theatrical production give the story a necessary grounding in authenticity. As always, she draws the reader into the world of the novel with lucid, precise writing and an intriguing premise. Anyone familiar with The Tempest will admire her skillful manipulation of the play’s twists and turns into the novel’s plot. And she adds her own bit of magic with the inclusion of the spirit of Miranda, who has grown in a young woman, haunting Felix in his woodland retreat.
So why was I a bit disappointed? I wanted to know the prisoner-actors more fully, especially 8Handz/Ariel and Leggs/Caliban. Felix is a fully-developed character as is his chosen Miranda, a dancer-actress named Anne-Marie Greenland. Tony and Sal are appropriately slimy politicians. But the people on the inside of the prison seem merely agents for Felix’s grand plan. And perhaps that is justifiable given that The Tempest is Prospero’s final magic.
Hag-Seed is the story of a man who has been usurped as artistic director of a theatre festival. He goes into a self-imposed exile and begins planning his vengeance on the men responsible for his downfall. After several years he gets a new job teaching prisoners Shakespeare, where he finally realizes how he can give retribution with a production of The Tempest.
On its own it is an enjoyable story. I loved how it kept me guessing about how you could really exact revenge on some people with a play.
After reading the book I went back to The Tempest and the play made more sense. Although the book helped me understand the play, reading the play after helped me appreciate a few of the details that I at first felt were a little tidy at the end of the book. I had way too much fun figuring out which character in the book was which character in the play.
I am thankful for The Hogarth Shakespeare project for keeping Shakespeare alive and loved.
I don’t think this is Atwood’s best story but, honestly, I’m not sure she could write a bad book.
The beginning didn’t resonate with me. I found Felix, the obsessed and “alternative” director who is betrayed and fired from his job as director of a major festival, less than convincing as an artistic visionary. While I had this sense that I was supposed to question the nature of his visions of his dead daughter, I didn’t, not really.
That changed when Felix sees a change to exact revenge on those who stabbed him in the back and he, and the plot, kick into high gear. Atwood’s play-within-a-play-within-a-play worked for me and I found myself sinking into the story. Where I had originally seen a bit of silliness, I started to see some black humor. Where originally what was happening seemed cut-and-dried, I now wondered.
Felix cast his Tempest from a prison population and, to make it more relevant to the other inmates, he allows them to rewrite some of the speeches: the resulting rap made me laugh. The interpretations and insights into Shakespeare’s work that emerge from both Felix and the prisoners are thought-provoking and occasionally hilarious.
This is worth reading.
Atwood has placed the story inside of a literal prison while using the characters to teach the audience and other characters in the book about the different types of prisons - one of the themes within the play The Tempest, upon which the story is written. The writing is as clever and engaging as we've come to expect from Atwood's work. Highly recommended for those who enjoy a good story, and more so for those who enjoy well written literature that references the classics.
Note: I was given a free ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Felix has been ousted from his position of Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His second in command, Tony, has been secretly working behind Felix's back and has usurped the position.
Felix was at the top of the heap with productions that gave the theatre goers experiences that they would never forget; rich, experimental, unique. What gave Tony the toe hold was that Felix was dealing with the grief of losing his three-year-old daughter to sudden illness. He has lost his wife shortly after childbirth and this really hit home. Tony used this to further his ambitions of being top cat.
Rather than stay around and put up with "Poor Felix" and snide remarks, he disappears into the country and takes up residence in a run down shack he discovers. Hand pump for water, outhouse for Nature calls and barely any furniture. Not much but it will do. Felix also takes a new name; instead of Felix Phillips he is Felix Duke...Mr. Duke.
After nine years of just living, plotting his revenge, planning his grand performance of "The Tempest" that would bring him back in grand style, and imagining his daughter is still alive and living with him, he takes a job. It is a teaching position with the Literacy Through Literature; high school level but in an unusual setting - the Fletcher County Correctional Institute, working with the inmates.
Felix's approach is entirely different from the previous teacher....he will have them study Shakespeare and put on productions of the plays! This is where things start to happen. After three years, he gets a chance to seek his revenge and it will be through the production of "The Tempest."
I am not really up on Shakespeare, but this approach made sense of "The Tempest" for me. It does use the plot lines from the original play, but there are adaptations in character and events to make it much more current.
I really did enjoy it and Margaret Atwood's writing style.