Revenge is a dish best served cold. Twelve years cold. In a production of the Tempest. Performed by prison inmates.

A review of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed

Felix Phillips is the artistic director of a theater festival. His style is avant-garde: “What was so bad about MacBeth done with chainsaws? Topical. Direct.” But he is pushed out by an underhanded business partner and goes off the grid for twelve years. He starts running a Shakespeare class for inmates at a local prison, and his plans for vengeance ensue. The whole novel is written with eager delight, pushing the plot forward. I couldn’t stop listening to it. 

Margaret Atwood has written an update to the Tempest in which the protagonist is fired during a production of the Tempest, enacts his vengeance during another production of the Tempest, all while his life adheres to the broad outlines of the Tempest. Despite some required suspension of disbelief, it’s an adventure.

You don’t need to be a Tempest expert to enjoy this, but I’d recommend skimming a plot summary of the Bard’s original, just to put Atwood in context.

Odds and ends

On paying taxes: “Such was the minimum price to be paid for the privilege of walking around on the earth’s crust and continuing to breathe, eat, and sh**, he thought sourly.”

On getting fired: “Felix climbed into his unsatisfactory car and drove out of the parking lot, into the rest of his life.”

On swearing: During the class, prisoners had a running competition. They could only use swear words found in the text of the play, and they lost points for any other swears.

Don’t believe me? Read other reviews.

POSITIVE

Viv Groskop, The Guardian: “This is written with such gusto and mischief that it feels so much like something Atwood would have written anyway. The joy and hilarity of it just sing off the page. It’s a magical eulogy to Shakespeare, leading the reader through a fantastical reworking of the original but infusing it with ironic nods to contemporary culture, thrilling to anyone who knows The Tempest intimately, but equally compelling to anyone not overly familiar with the work….It’s riotous, insanely readable and just the best fun.”

Rebecca Abrams, Financial Times: “Rap songs, Disney dolls, video montages and special effects spin her version off into a deliciously brave new world of its own….Hag-Seed is not only a fine example of the shape-shifting versatility of Shakespeare’s texts, but a successful novel in its own right….Hag-Seed displays Atwood’s inventiveness at its shining best, a novel that enchants on its own terms and returns you to the enchantments of the original.”

MIXED

Emily St. John Mandel, The New York Times: “The novel to this point is a marvel of gorgeous yet economical prose, in the service of a story that’s utterly heartbreaking yet pierced by humor, with a plot that retains considerable subtlety even as the original’s back story falls neatly into place. But the prison production of “The Tempest” leads to some of the book’s clunkiest elements.”

Books and authors mentioned in the book (read by the prisoners), besides Shakespeare:

  • Catcher in the Rye
  • Stephen King
  • Curious Incidence of the Dog in the Nighttime 
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