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review 2017-03-27 02:40
"Our revels now are ended."
Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood

I should have read The Tempest ahead of this, but I was over-eager in my excitement at getting my greedy little paws on a copy of Margaret Atwood's Hag-Seed. It worked out in the end, though, because she so kindly explained the basic plot of The Tempest at the end of the book, which helped clear up some of my questions.

 

Hag-Seed starts off a bit slow, with the betrayal and then multiple chapters of Felix sinking into delusions of the daughter he lost living with him. That is why this book, which I actually really loved, is a 4-star read and not 4.5 or 5. After 75 pages, I was actually thinking I might DNF this one, which is a very, very rare occurrence for me as I am stubborn and unable to let go of books once I start reading them.

 

Then I decided on a whim to push on, anyway.

 

Boy am I glad that I did. I recognized many of the basic elements of a good revenge plot as I read and, as Felix helped his prisoners, and thus the reader, get more familiar with the story of The Tempest, I slowly began to pick up on the lines Atwood had drawn between her characters and Shakespeare's.

 

Of course, the end result of a modern take on an old story is that the basic character, plot, and world development have been done, they just need embellishing and cleaning up a bit. We'll call that the gold paint on the cloak, for those who get the reference. This, I think, Atwood did very well. I felt bad for Felix, certainly, after what was done to him in the name of getting ahead, but also felt his madness just as Prospero in The Tempest was also a bit mad, and even questioned if he had gone too far at times. I think my favorite was 8Handz, though, for reasons I don't want to list here because it would give away too much of the story.

 

Overall, if you're a fan of retellings and/or Shakespeare, I would say to give this one a go. General Margaret Atwood fans may be a bit more split.

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review 2017-03-09 21:56
Hag-Seed
Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood

Hag-Seed is Margaret Atwood's entry in the "novelists take on Shakespeare's plays" lineup, and is her take on The Tempest.

 

Felix, the director of a Canadian theater festival, and a lover of Shakespeare, is planning his latest extravaganza: a production of The Tempest, starring a teenaged gymnast as Miranda.  And then he finds his assistant has betrayed him and taken his job.  His daughter, Miranda, has just died, at age 3.  He is a broken man.

 

And so, using an assumed name ("Mr. Duke"), he goes off into the wilderness to become a hermit, living only with the spirit of his dead daughter.  After a while, he revives enough to stalk his former assistant on the internet, as the latter goes from success to success.  He also eventually becomes the leader of an inmate rehabilitation program, teaching literacy and job skills, down at the local prison. 

 

His teaching method: staging Shakespeare.  The prisoners are both cast and crew (the "job skills" part) for plays like MacBeth and Julius Caesar.  His next production: The Tempest.

 

And then he finds out his former assistant, now a government minister, is going to be attending the performance.  And a plan forms in his mind.  One that will involve some of the special skills of his cast, who include pickpockets, ex gang enforcers, black hat hackers, and a crooked accountant.

 

I dithered between giving this 3.5 and 4 stars.  The writing is pure Atwood.  The plot, however - it's that fourth act that gives me pause.  Is it as good as Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid's Tale?  No.  Is it still an interesting and entertaining novel?  Yes, absolutely.

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review 2016-12-21 00:54
Hag-Seed
Hag-Seed (Hogarth Shakespeare) - Margaret Atwood

Your profanity, thinks Felix, has oft been your whoreson hag-born progenitor of literacy.

When I learned that Margaret Atwood had written a book for the Hogarth Shakespeare series, I was both thrilled and hesitant to pick it up. I love Atwood’s work. I love Shakespeare. However, there are elements of both authors writing that I can see would react like fire and ice.

 

Atwood is one of my go-to authors for strong female characters. Shakespeare does not come immediately to my mind for that purpose. On the other hand, I love Shakespeare’s thoughtful and often sensitive male characters, which in turn is not something I have really found in an Atwood novel. Most of Atwood’s male characters I’ve encountered were horrid human beings. I mean look at Atwood’s Penelopiad (part of the Canongate Myths Series) to see even the most ancient of heroes being taken down a few pegs. Not that I object – I very much enjoyed her modern deconstruction of the classic story, but I do sometimes feel a little sorry for the male characters that cross her path.

Therefore it is fair to say, I really had some misgivings how Atwood would approach this re-telling of The Tempest, which is packed with men full of ambition, desire, and longings for revenge, and where the only female character, Miranda, is being maneuvered like a chess piece.

 

I was wrong.

 

Hag-Seed showed that despite their differences, there are also a few things that Shakespeare and Atwood have in common: the ability to come up with a gripping narrative, imaginative ways of explaining the world as they observe it by relating different angles to the unsuspecting reader, a talent for striking a balance between thought-provoking and evocative writing, and best of all an enormous sense of having fun with words.

 

Readers who may have been put off Shakespeare by having had to sit through endless recitals of famous lines in school may not remember it but Shakespeare was funny. If nothing else, there are memes and objects out there that still thrive on Shakespeare’s appeal to the sense of fun in people. None more so than the Shakespearean insult kit (see here or here for a bit of fun).

 

Atwood, who can also be wickedly funny, has picked up on this, and actually uses it to lighten up the otherwise potentially depressing or even threatening setting of a prison, where we get to await in anticipation how the inmates will  put Shakespeare’s own words to a more creative use. I honestly looked forward to the inmates getting to grips with Shakespeare’s The Tempest by using his own swear words:

“Born to be hanged. A pox o’your throat. Bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog. Whoreson. Insolent noisemaker. Wide-chapp’d rascal. Malignant thing. Blue-eyed hag. Freckled whelp hag-born. Thou earth. Thou tortoise. Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself. As wicked dew as e’er my mother brushed, With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen, Drop on you both. A south-west blow on ye, And blister you all o’er. Toads, beetles, bats light on you. Filth as thou art. Abhorr’ed slave. The red plague rid you. Hag-seed. All the infections that the sun sucks up, From bogs, fens, flats, fall on – add name here – and make him, By inch-meal a disease. Most scurvy monster. Most perfidious and drunken monster. Moon-calf. Pied ninny. Scurvy patch. A murrain on you. The devil take your fingers. The dropsy drown this fool. Demi-devil. Thing of darkness.”

Of course, the investigation into Shakespearean swear words was not the only aspect. I loved. I also loved the scene setting and how Atwood re-imagined the isolation of Prospero’s island in the isolation of the prison, how she transferred the play within the play in The Tempest into a play about a play about a play by making it clear from the outset that Shakespeare’s play The Tempest will be focal point of Felix’s (Atwood’s main character’s) ambition.

 

I loved how she used the diverse characters to show different interpretations of the original play, and how she transposed issues of colonialism, sexism, privilege, politics, gender issues, and others I haven’t even contemplated yet, from Shakespeare’s work into a modern setting.

 

So, to anyone, who rolls their eyes at reading Shakespeare because they have been bored to despair with a few lines of his most famous works, I say pick up a copy of Hag-Seed. It is just about one of the most gripping, thoughtful, and entertaining ways to find out why people are still enthralled by his works.

“One question. Is ‘shit’ a curse word? Can we use it, or what?” It’s a fine point, thinks Felix. Technically, “shit” might not be considered a curse word as such, only a scatological expression, but he doesn’t want to hear it all the time. Shit this, shitty that, you shit. He could let them vote on it, but what’s the point of being in charge of this motley assemblage if he refuses to take charge? “‘ Shit’ is off bounds,” he says. “Adjust your cursing accordingly.” “‘ Shit’ was okay last year,” says Leggs. “So how come?” “I changed my mind,” says Felix. “I got tired of it. Too much shit is monotonous, and monotony is anti-Shakespeare.

Miranda - The tempest, by John William Waterhouse

Miranda (The Tempest) by John William Waterhouse

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review 2016-12-14 20:00
Hag-Seed / Margaret Atwood
Hag-Seed (Hogarth Shakespeare) - Margaret Atwood

Hag-Seed is a re-visiting of Shakespeare’s play of magic and illusion, The Tempest, and will be the fourth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

The Tempest is set on a remote island full of strange noises and creatures. Here, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, plots to restore the fortunes of his daughter Miranda by using magic and illusion -- starting with a storm that will bring Antonio, his treacherous brother, to him. All Prospero, the great sorcerer, needs to do is watch as the action he has set in train unfolds.

In Margaret Atwood’s ‘novel take’ on Shakespeare’s original, theatre director Felix has been unceremoniously ousted from his role as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Festival. When he lands a job teaching theatre in a prison, the possibility of revenge presents itself – and his cast find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever.

 

I really enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing and her sense of humour. I also really enjoy Shakespeare’s works—in fact, I’m working on a project of seeing all 37 of his plays performed. So this modern retelling of The Tempest was right up my alley.

Felix (Atwood’s Propero) is reduced from the avant-garde theatre director of the Makeshiweg Festival to an older guy living in a hovel in the countryside. Maybe not quite as dramatic as being a deposed Duke, but these changes never feel good. Felix takes a number of years to come to terms with the loss of the job that he had derived most of his identity from, tacked on to earlier tragedies which deprived him of his wife and daughter, Miranda. Eventually, we see him take his talents to a correctional facility to teach literacy and theatre arts to prisoners. [Atwood seems to be using some of her research from The Heart Goes Last and using a prison setting again]. Felix is surprised to find that he enjoys the work and that the inmates seem to benefit from it too.

And then the opportunity for revenge presents itself! As I knew it had to, to mirror the original work. I also was aware that The Tempest isn’t the most logical or sensible of plot lines—there’s a lot of magic and mayhem. The revenge plot in Atwood’s version is also highly unlikely—that’s the main reason for my deduction of half a star from my rating, but I’m dithering about whether that’s even fair, given the unlikelihood of the events in the original. But somehow, Atwood makes it work quite well, getting everyone appropriately punished, restored, and/or married, just as Shakespeare did.

Bonus points for Felix only allowing his students to swear in Shakespearean form—they must scour the play for the swear words and use only those while in the class space! [I notice that Atwood lists a Shakespearean insult generator as a source in her bibliography]. And for all the ways that Felix makes The Tempest more palatable to the men with useful reinterpretations.

For those who are interested in seeing the prison system from the inside, I would recommend Stephen Reid’s brutally beautiful memoir A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden, which was also in Atwood’s bibliography.

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review 2016-12-05 08:00
Hag-seed
Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood

The Tempest was the first Shakespeare play that I ever saw live (in The Globe in 2011). I've since read the original play and when I saw that Margaret Atwood was writing a Hogarth Shakespeare based on it, I had to read it (after previously enjoying The Handmaid's Tale). But I previously read My Name Is Shylock (based on The Merchant of Venice) from the same series, and it was not a great success.

I liked Hag-Seed a lot more. The story is much lighter but very enjoyable. A theater director is disposed and after years of solitude he starts directing Shakespeare plays in prison for the Literacy through theater project. When they are performing The Tempest, there is a great chance for him to finally get his revenge.

I don't think it is necessary to have read The Tempest, but it will help in finding all the parallels between the play and this story. It was a great read, with very nice characters, and I finished it in a day. I would certainly recommend Hag-seed!

Thanks to Blogging for Books and Netgalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

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