The line everybody knows from “The Tempest” — whether they’ve seen it or not — comes late in the play when young Miranda spies the shipwrecked men on her father’s magical island and exclaims, “O brave new world, that has such people in ’t!” That’s a charmingly naive reaction because we understand that these characters are neither goodly nor beauteous, as she supposes.
It’s hard not to bring the same cynical understanding to the publishing industry, which keeps trying to pass off waterlogged ideas as fresh. Like the revivals that have long kept Broadway afloat, updated versions of old stories wash up ever more frequently on bookstore shelves. This year, reliable bestsellers like Curtis Sittenfeld, Ian McEwan and Anne Tyler have all embarked on the HMS Recycling.
And now comes Margaret Atwood’s “Hag-Seed,” her modern-day take on “The Tempest.” It’s the latest volume of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, which hires well-known authors to write novels based on the Bard’s plays. Maybe, as Polonius claims, “borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry,” but in publishing, such borrowing has a time-tested advantage: a ready-made audience. The series started last year with Jeanette Winterson’s revision of “The Winter’s Tale,” and has moved on to include Howard Jacobson’s take on “The Merchant of Venice” and Tyler’s version of “The Taming of the Shrew.” Next year offers Tracy Chevalier’s “Othello” and Jo Nesbo’s “Macbeth.” If you can keep from shuffling off this mortal coil for a few more years, Hogarth is promising Gillian Flynn’s retelling of “Hamlet” in 2021.
The rest, you can be sure, will not be silence. Four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, his plays have endured so many visions and revisions that nothing anyone could subject them to now would incite much surprise. Indeed, Atwood alludes to the absurd range of tortured treatments at the start of “Hag-Seed,” which is about a Canadian theater director named Felix Phillips: His production of “Pericles” involved extraterrestrials, he gave Artemis the head of a praying mantis, and he brought Hermione back to life as a vampire in “The Winter’s Tale.” Yes, the audience booed, but Felix was thrilled: “Where there are boos, there’s life!”
That arrogance, though, is what cost Felix his theatrical kingdom long before “Hag-Seed” opens. Twelve years ago, devastated by the death of his daughter, Miranda, he began designing a lavish production of “The Tempest.” Among other “innovations,” the show was to involve a transvestite Ariel walking on stilts, a paraplegic Caliban riding an oversize skateboard and a Trinculo juggling squids. But so consumed was Felix with this grief-driven plan that he didn’t notice the machinations of his deputy, Tony, who secretly lobbied the theater board to fire him. Deposed and humiliated, Felix withdrew with his books to a remote hovel where he has been plotting his revenge ever since.
You probably see what’s happening here. Atwood has designed an ingenious doubling of the plot of “The Tempest”: Felix, the usurped director, finds himself cast by circumstances as a real-life version of Prospero, the usurped Duke. If you know the play well, these echoes grow stronger when Felix decides to exact his revenge by conjuring up a new version of “The Tempest” designed to overwhelm his enemies. But marooned far from the theater world, Felix must pull this off using only the magic of his own artistic genius and a crew of prisoners at a local correctional facility. While he once directed professional actors, now he must rely on the skills of guys like PPod, Red Coyote and SnakeEye.
Atwood gives over several chapters to Felix’s discussions of “The Tempest,” and despite the essentially academic content of these scenes, they’re delightful (or at least they are to me, a former English professor). For all his wacky production ideas, Felix turns out to be an exceptionally fine teacher, the kind who leads with good questions and understands when to explain, when to keep quiet. The prisoners are goofy fun, too, particularly as they struggle to abide by Felix’s first rule: Only profanity from the script may be used — so keep that in mind, you freckled whelp hag-born things. And although these rough-talking convicts know nothing about Elizabethan drama, their own imprisonment illuminates some themes of the play with surprising sympathy.
All of this, of course, is a testament to Atwood’s own understanding of “The Tempest.” But the way Shakespeare’s play vacillates from comedy to romance to tragedy poses challenges for a contemporary novelist (and, to be fair, for contemporary directors). The slapstick antics of Trinculo and Stefano never go out of style, but what are modern audiences to make of Caliban’s rage against Prospero: “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, which thou takest from me”? We hear that angry claim from the other side of the colonial era, looking back at centuries of slavery and genocide.
Although Atwood acknowledges this painful issue in passing, it never attains the emotional weight one expects given her cast of prisoners and the racial taint of modern incarceration. Instead, this is, weirdly, a revision of “The Tempest” in which the monster-slave is even more defanged than in the original story. Where Prospero gave Caliban the language with which to curse him, Atwood has given him a rap number. Otherwise, for all the novel’s close attention to its Shakespearean source, there is not much of a role for Caliban in these pages. Yes, he gets the title, sort of — “Hag-Seed” is one of Prospero’s angry nicknames for Caliban — but little more.
And the book’s erratic tone is exacerbated further by a tragedy that Atwood has inserted into Shakespeare’s plot: In “The Tempest,” Prospero is exiled with his daughter, but in “Hag-Seed,” Felix is driven mad with grief over the death of his Miranda. For years, he imagines her living in his house, hovering on the edge of his vision, even talking with him. These are heartbreaking moments, but they sit awkwardly amid the book’s increasingly silly antics.
Which raises the broader question of whether we need these modern-day versions at all. Unlike Prospero, Atwood isn’t ready to break her staff or drown her books, which is good for us. But with at least 30 more plays to go, the Hogarth Shakespeare series generates all the enthusiasm of a very tweedy duty. Although name recognition alone will sell a few copies, the appeal of an exercise like this volume feels limited to teachers and students of “The Tempest.” Others are likely to find that for all its clever echoes and allusions, the whole production melts into air, into thin air.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Margaret Atwood
Hogarth. 301 pp. $25