Hag-Seed: William Shakespeares The Tempest Retold: A Novel

This humorous novel (320 pages) was published in October of 2016 by Hogarth. The book takes you to a Shakespeare theater festival. David read Hag-Seed and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.


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William Shakespeare's The Tempest Retold

Margaret Atwood

The Hogarth Shakespeare series brings together the Bard’s classic works and modern high-caliber authors. In this novel, the brilliant Margaret Atwood reinterprets The Tempest to dazzling effect.

When the story opens, we meet Felix Philips, the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theater Festival (a thinly-veiled version of the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada). The festival is a big deal — the local community depends on it — and Felix has let it all go to his head a bit.

Oh, Felix. He’s theatrical, flamboyant, even. Middle-aged, his world revolved around the theater and his found family there. He’s smart. He’s known grief. And he’s enamored of over-the-top productions: His version of Macbeth was notable for incorporating chainsaws.

After years of devotion to Makeshiweg, he’s betrayed. The theater business manager Tony (a.k.a., the ‘devious, twisted bastard’) wants Felix out, and he convinces the Board to fire Felix. Our would-be hero spends years sulking, living in a cabin off a dirt road. He eventually gets himself together and finds a new purpose: Running a theater program at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute, where he helps inmates put on Shakespeare plays.

And one day, Felix is given his chance for sweet, sweet revenge.

To her vast credit, Atwood weaves at least four versions of The Tempest into her story. First, there’s Shakespeare’s original script and the one in progress when Felix was fired. There’s also the version he mounts to exact his revenge, and Felix’s personal story itself, which finds many parallels with the original.

And yet, you do not need to know The Tempest to enjoy this book — although Atwood has helpfully included a three-page summary of the play in the back of her novel.

Atwood’s story is entertaining and engaging, but — like Shakespeare’s best works — the plot might not be the main draw. The characters and, particularly, their discussions of what their relationship to the theater means to them are compelling stuff. And there are vibrant conversations about what happens after the curtain falls on The Tempest, flights of imagination that illustrate why Shakespeare’s characters have resonated with us through the centuries.

This is a lively, playful ride through The Tempest and an excellent reminder of what makes theater so very personal and universal at exactly the same time.

‘Let’s see how you made out with your curse words,’ he says. ‘Who’s got the consolidated list?’

‘Bent Pencil,’ says Shiv.

‘And who’s going to read it so we can all hear it?’

‘Him,’ says Leggs.

‘Cause he can pronounce them,’ says PPod.

Bent Pencil takes the floor and reads out, gravely and impressively, in his best board-meeting voice: ‘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.’ — Margaret Atwood

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