Reviewed by Dessa Bayrock
Hag-Seed is Margaret Atwood’s newest novel, and it takes a new tack; it’s not edgy or political like Oryx and Crake or Handmaid's Tale, and it has no underlying moral agenda. Instead, Hag-Seed, much like the Shakespeare play it riffs on, is meant as pure entertainment.
And this isn't to say that Hag-Seed isn’t serious, or interesting, or cleverly done, because it’s all of those things, too. But first and foremost it's the story of one man with a gripe, and the petty and hilarious happenings that always follow a long-lasting grudge. That, sir, is entertaining.
Felix is a theatre director of some prestige and high standing in his small Ontario community, a position he enjoys until his nemesis and business partner votes him out of the festival. It's a tidy piece of backstabbing, and Felix doesn't see it coming even though he probably should have, which turns him into quite the pathetic and pitiable figure. To hide his shame, he drives out into the wilderness, finds a shack, and resolves to live there until he regains his confidence, with only the imagined ghost of his beloved daughter for company.
If this sounds familiar, it's because it's very nearly the opening of The Tempest, in which the nobleman Prospero is betrayed by his brother and winds up destitute on an abandoned desert island. He, too, has only his daughter for company, although at least his daughter is alive.
But Prospero and Felix both have plans to get back at the men—both named Tony, conveniently—who betrayed them. In the meantime, they both find ways to pass the time until vengeance is within their grasp; Prospero takes up magic and mastery of spirits, and Felix begins teaching theatre at a local penitentiary. They enjoy their distractions, but are quick to grasp their respective opportunities for revenge. The hated Tonies each wash up on the shores of the men they betrayed, and a reckoning is at hand in both cases; Prospero's man literally washes up on the desert island, and Felix's arch-nemesis is set to tour the prison and view the latest production from Felix’s penitentiary players—which, fittingly, happens to be The Tempest.
Atwood plays with her original material in circles and circles, creating parallels between the characters of the novel and the characters of the play only to twist them into new and unexpected shapes. The title of the novel is the best example of this; “hag-seed” is an insult Shakespeare’s Prospero hurls at his bestial, unwilling servant Caliban, demeaning his simple mind and animal urges. In the world of the novel, it’s a word that applies to Felix's players; as petty criminals, thieves, hackers, and fraudsters, their animal instincts are what’s landed them in prison in the first place. They relate to Caliban, Prospero's ill-treated prisoner, with sympathy, with knowledge of the same. And yet they are the ones to help Felix regain his rightful kingdom of the theatre festival, the ones willing to work and better themselves.
The result is a critical, cock-eyed look at what it means to be good or evil, to deserve praise or punishment. Society would consider the prisoners to be unsavoury characters, and yet they prove themselves as performers, as scholars, and as helpful, dedicated, and creative accomplices in Felix’s plans. Tony, on the other hand, is a man of high social and political standing—and yet he grows more despicable with every passing chapter. He’s a snake of a man, slippery and manipulative—and yet this is the sort of man society raises up?
Atwood, as you’d expect, delivers this twisted and terribly entertaining plotline with aplomb, building a protagonist equal parts pitiable and eye-rollingly pretentious. Like the original Shakespeare, it’s surprisingly hilarious, and heartbreaking, and redemptive – and wickedly entertaining.
Hag-Seed is published by Hogarth