My first piece of reading for this week was Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, “a contemporary retelling” of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I actually picked this one up for Atwood rather than for Shakespeare; given my general unfamiliarity with The Tempest, I was about halfway through before I did my research and actually realised what I was reading.
Felix (“lucky, prosperous — hence, Prospero”) is the artistic director of the Makeshiweg festival who, after being wronged by his contemporaries, ends up in a situation where he ends up preparing for a performance of The Tempest at his local prison – with inmates instead of actors. Thus the dualistic narrative merges the play-within-the-play with the play-within-the-play-within-the-play to offer two different interpretations of The Tempest. The prison production of the play, with performances from such colourfully-monikered characters as 8Handz, WonderBoy and Bent Pencil, seems to favour an interpretation that The Tempest, to some extent, is an exploration of the baser impulses of humanity (blah blah blah) when left in microcosm. As part of their course requirements, Felix asks the prisoners to consider their roles within the play and, more tellingly, what they think will happen to their respective characters once the play has ended. Many of the prisoners envisage bleak fates for the play’s cast, mostly as a result of Caliban’s primeval tendencies and Prospero’s naivety in forgiving Alonso. This favours an interpretation of Caliban as no more than an anagram of “cannibal”, a colonized subject who, in the case, is cannibalizing his newfound society on the boat back to Milan. Another interesting interpretation, though, is the argument that Caliban is the child of Prospero – though the idea is unreasonable in a literal sense, it could be interpreted as a commentary on the way that lawlessness in modern society is a result of society’s own impositions – in the context of the novel, an argument that defunding prison programs serves only to make the prisoners less amenable to rehabilitation.
Elsewhere, Felix’s backstory is very hurriedly sketched out, and the story, on its own, is almost cliché. The characters in the book are, on the face of things, rather one-note and cartoonish. I’m convinced, though, that this is deliberate on Atwood’s part; the tale of Hag-Seed means infinitely more when read in conjunction and in comparison with The Tempest. One of Atwood’s cleverer tricks is the recurrence of Felix’s daughter Miranda, who died when she was three. Though her most obvious resemblance is to the Miranda of the text, Atwood gradually steers the reader towards seeing her as Ariel – her unseen existence is similar to the prisoners’ interpretation of Ariel – and a romance between two new characters who obviously fit the roles of Miranda and Ferdinand confirms this. The final lines of the main text and the epilogue mirror the ending of The Tempest, but in reverse; first Felix reflects that he has been “Set… free” by the performance, and then says thusly to his imagined Miranda: “to the elements / Be free”. Whereas at the end of The Tempest, Prospero finds himself in solitude and requires the audience to set him free, Felix’s isolation is ultimately self-imposed, but could arguably also represent an element of mercy, both for himself and his spirit-like daughter. But at the same time, he does expect Miranda to be watching, promising him the equivalent of “calm seas, auspicious gales / And sail so expeditious that shall catch / [His] royal fleet far off.”
It’s arguably more interesting to look at this interpretation not because of their implications in direct competition with the play, but outside of that. Shakespeare was content to leave the ending of The Tempest quite open-ended. But in Hag-Seed, the way in which Felix’s assignment asks us to go beyond this suggests a modern desire for answers even if it is narratively problematic. And like TV shows that go on too long with seemingly no prospect of ending, Shakespeare’s plays would be considerably weaker if they devolved into speculative fiction.
But Felix’s search for answers, given his deep personal connection with the play, is more of a soul-searching exercise than an actual interest in what happens. When he awards all teams of prisoners full marks for their explorations, we get the sense that he means it with a sort of unexpected sincerity. His desperation to know – to comfort himself – arguably reflects the modern obsession with answers, but the question remains of whether his character is diminished as a literary critic for this. Are we weaker because we, as modern readers, seek comfort in an ending?
Maybe not. Felix, unlike Prospero, is not pandering to an audience at the end. He has moved past that stage, and the world he lives in now is one that is not comfortable, but certain, and in a way, clichéd. He decides that he won’t bother with the Makeshiweg Festival anymore; his interpretation of The Tempest at the prison is the one he wanted to stage all along. It’s the sort of indulgent, hackneyed resolution that we’d come to expect – a basic plot of sorts – but at the same time, we’re glad of it, and arguably richer for it. And at the same time, as Felix realises that the actress Anne-Marie Greenland was his Miranda all along, and Miranda his willing-but-sometimes-not-willing Ariel, we don’t want to know any more.