Any act of artistic performance shares a close affinity with magic. Stephen King has made this connection in numerous essays, forewords, and introductions to his own work, and in his recent memoir, Bruce Springsteen refers to the connection forged between the musicians onstage and the audiences at their marathon concerts as a “magic trick.” William Shakespeare literalizes the connection between art and magic in his towering final play by making the main character an actual sorcerer, capable of conjuring storms and consorting with spirits. In the concluding scene of The Tempest, Prospero rejects his “rough magic,” vowing to bury his broken staff and drown his book of spells; it is nevertheless clear on which side of the equation his creator falls (and leaves open the question of whether this is Shakespeare himself, at the end of his career, speaking through his character).
The Tempest has been analyzed in dozens of ways: as the culmination of Shakespeare’s techniques and concerns; an examination of humankind’s alternating reliance on and conflict with the natural world; and, perhaps most interestingly, an early comment on colonialism and empire. It is also a play about the practice of making and performing plays – a metafictional commentary on the hold that stories have on their audience and, by implication, their creator.
It is not difficult to see what draws Margaret Atwood to the text. Over the course of her own long and storied career – in books such as Lady Oracle, Cat’s Eye, and The Blind Assassin – Atwood has similarly interrogated the nature of artistic creation and its effects. But she blows the doors off this investigation in her latest novel, a modern reworking of The Tempest that is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series honouring the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.
In Atwood’s modern retelling, Prospero becomes Felix Phillips, the erstwhile artistic director of the local Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. Felix has been forced out of his role by Tony Price, “that devious, twisted bastard,” who engineers a putsch in conjunction with an unctuous government minister named Sal O’Nally. After a dozen years have elapsed, Felix, who has taken a job as the director of a theatre program for medium-security inmates at Fletcher Correctional Institute, sees a chance for revenge by mounting a production of The Tempest inside the prison and inviting Tony and Sal, now both ensconced in the federal cabinet, to experience some “rough magic” of his own.
The parallels with Shakespeare’s text are readily apparent. Felix’s exile lasts for 12 years, the same amount of time Prospero spends on the island before stirring up the storm that brings his tormentors to his shores. Felix’s daughter, Miranda, died from meningitis at three years of age, the same age as Prospero’s daughter when the two were exiled. The dead daughter’s spirit, with whom Felix converses, is a refraction of Ariel in the original play. Tony and Sal are stand-ins for Shakespeare’s usurpers, Antonio and Alonso, and Lonnie Gordon, the kindly board chair at Makeshiweg, is a version of Gonzalo. Ferdinand becomes Freddie, Sal’s son; the young man is paired up with actress Anne-Marie, who has agreed to play Miranda because none of the macho male prisoners will take on the role of a woman. There is even a repeat of the chess game between the two nascent lovers.
This is all handled with verve and élan, and it is clear that Atwood is having great fun with her story and characters. Maybe a bit too much fun. The author has always had a tendency to overplay certain jokes and conceits (see, e.g., Tony’s backward speech in The Robber Bride), and Hag-Seed is no exception: Felix allows his charges to swear using only profanity that is contained in Shakespeare’s original play. After a while, the prisoners referring to each other as “whoreson” and “red plague” wears out its jocular welcome. (The novel’s title is a reference to Prospero’s insulting name for the monster Caliban.)
Atwood’s conception of The Tempest as “an early multi-media musical” is intriguing, as is the notion that were Shakespeare alive today, he would be enamoured with the latest in special-effects technology. But the way this plays out in the novel beggars credulity: whereas an audience member is perfectly able to suspend disbelief regarding Prospero’s magic, Atwood’s bedrock of naturalism vis à vis her setting and situation renders Felix’s revenge, when it occurs, frankly absurd, even in the context of a medium-security prison facility with forward-thinking staff and a philosophy of restorative justice.
Though maybe this is also part of the point. Much of Shakespeare – in The Tempest and throughout the rest of the canon – is fanciful on its face; the Bard’s longevity derives, at least in part, from his entertainment value, which frequently involves otherworldly beings, coincidence, and anti-realism. An updated rendition can perhaps be forgiven for indulging in a bit of goofy tomfoolery.
Less so, however, the sections in which Atwood has the prisoners provide their suppositions as to what befalls the play’s characters after the end of the text. This reads as baldly discursive and anticlimactic, even in modern garb. Shakespeare closes The Tempest by breaking the fourth wall and having Prospero address his audience directly. Atwood’s attempt at something similarly metafictional is less apt to draw the desired applause.