Hag-seed – Book Review

Title: Hag-seed
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Shakespeare retelling, fiction
Format: Paperback, 283 pages
My Rating: 3/5 stars

Summary (from back of book):
Treacherously toppled from his post as director  of the Makeshiweg Festival on the eve of his production of The Tempest, Felix retreats to a backwoods hovel to lick his wounds and mourn his lost daughter. And also to plot his revenge.

After twelve years his chance appears in the shape of a theatre course at a nearby prison. Here, Felix and his inmate actors with stage his Tempest at last, and snare the traitors who destroyed him. But will it remake Felix as his enemies fall?

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I’m studying adaptations of Shakespeare next year, and figured this might be a good book to read. It’s based around The Tempest, which is one of my FAVOURITE Shakespeare plays of all time (I got to see it at Stratford-upon-Avon, and it’s possibly one of the most magical experiences of my LIFE.)

Also, it’s written by Margaret Atwood?? Who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale?? Which I loved studying at A-level? Literally, what is not to love about this?

A fair amount, as it turns out.

My main issue is with the plot. I 100% appreciate that this is a retelling of The Tempest, and that Felix is Prospero etc. Of course his revenge is supposed to work! That’s how the play ends, after all.

But this isn’t a play. The novel is set in real life, with characters who are more than Shakespeare’s. I can follow Felix wanting to fulfil the part of Prospero perfectly, and his desperate need for revenge makes sense. But if you tell me that Tony was actually stupid enough to have a conversation about revenge in the middle of a prison, I’d say you were crazy.

There just wasn’t enough conflict for me. Felix has been through a huge ordeal, yes, but it really feels as though everything just went…right? Like I appreciate that it probably would do at the end of the novel, through a stroke of luck or something, but there were literally no hindrances to his plan at all. None of them properly stood up to him, none of them so much as threw a spanner in the works. There was no sense of danger, or thrill.

Everything went smoothly, as though all the other characters were puppets on a string.

Of course, in the original, this is exactly right – Prospero has everyone dangling by a thread. But Felix? Felix has no powers. He appears to be rather charismatic, but that’s the extent of it. Surely the other characters wouldn’t bow to him? These men who have spent their lives ruthlessly undercutting one another to advance upon the social ladder? They all feel so bland as antagonists, truth be told.

This doesn’t just go for the antagonists either – all of Felix’s inmate actors are virtually indistinguishable from one another. 8Handz, Leggs, and Bent Pencil are the only names I remember distinctly, the only ones who stick out from the crowd of random stage names. Even these ones don’t have much of a personality, though I do have a soft spot for 8Handz seeing as he plays my favourite original character, Ariel.

In fact, the only character who is developed at all is Felix. I must admit, he is fascinating (and highly unreliable.) There’s a single moment in the book, in a different character’s point of view, where he’s called insane, and suddenly we can see that everything he’s doing, everything he’s heading towards, is the result of some crazed revenge fantasy.

However, he’s well aware of this, which is what makes him so compelling. He’s highly analytical, creative, willing to push boundaries. Of course, with everything he’s been through re: his wife and daughter, there’s a certain element of sympathy that you just can’t help but feel.

There’s a touch of fantasy to this novel in the form of his dead daughter, Miranda, and for the majority of the book we’re left unsure of whether she’s actually there as a ghost, or whether he’s merely hallucinating. I mean, at the very end, I’m still unsure. But she’s an important character, and is essentially the driving force behind all of this – basically everything Felix does is to free his daughter, by giving her new life through the play.

If you were studying The Tempest at all, I’d highly recommend this book, however – whilst the plot and characters don’t work for me, the book gets a star for the sheer amount of textual analysis it contains. The ending few chapters (where the inmates write their own versions of what happens to each character after the play) alone are worth a read, especially if you’re looking for those all-important “alternate interpretations”.

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So there we have it. This was a weird one for me, and even if I’m not the biggest fan of the plot, it’s sparked an idea for an essay in my head that I really want to write (lol, nerd).

Anyone got good Shakespeare retelling recs? My favourite is still Saving Hamlet (even if I, yanno, haven’t READ Hamlet.)

Lots of love,
Lost Signature

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