Evil twins and slippery doubles abound in literature, a subject Margaret Atwood explored in depth in her 2002 essay collection Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing.
As creators of fictional worlds, writers are engaged in a kind of sanctioned duplicity, the pleasures and perils of which these essays anatomise with aplomb — not least in relation to Prospero, the magician-king in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, who, as Atwood puts it, “knows he’s been up to something, and that something is a little guilt-making”.
Fourteen years on, her new novel Hag-Seed gives full artistic expression to these ideas in an exuberant revisioning of The Tempest that teems with twins and doubles.
The Tempest is a play within a play, a performance staged by Prospero, erstwhile Duke of Milan. Twelve years earlier, he had been usurped by his wicked brother Antonio, and exiled to a tropical island along with his infant daughter Miranda. When Fate helpfully brings his enemies’ ship close to the island, Prospero uses his magic arts to bring them ashore and lure them to repentance.
In Hag-Seed, Atwood gives us a theatrical fiction set within a narrative one. Ruthlessly ousted from his post as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival, Felix Phillips — aka Prospero — retreats to a hut in the Canadian countryside to simmer in resentment and fantasies of revenge.
Fast-forward 12 years and Felix, still in self-imposed exile and now going by the alibi of Mr Duke, is working at a men’s prison, where he stages productions of Shakespeare performed by the inmates. “Wizardry in the slammer”, as he archly calls it. Fate conspires to bring Felix’s usurpers to the prison, whereupon he seizes his chance to settle old scores. The vehicle for his revenge is a production of The Tempest.
Hag-Seed is the latest in a series of novels from Hogarth Press in which leading writers rework Shakespeare, and it is far and away the most successful to date, in part because Atwood never loses sight of the original. Quotations from and references to Shakespeare’s play weave through the novel like the “sounds and sweet airs” that fill the isle in the original. In Shakespeare’s Tempest, the “hag-seed” is the character of Caliban, offspring of the witch Sycorax and now enslaved by Prospero. It is Caliban, “this thing of darkness”, as Prospero calls him, who gives the play its darker core; likewise in Atwood’s version.
But Atwood is never enslaved by her master. Rap songs, Disney dolls, video montages and special effects spin her version off into a deliciously brave new world of its own. Plotlines are allowed to develop after “the revels” are ended. Caliban is given a play of his own in which he tells the story from his perspective. The characters, too, are artfully reimagined. Felix, like Prospero, has a daughter called Miranda, but in Atwood’s version Miranda died of meningitis as a child and lives on only in her father’s memory as a figment of his imagination, an “intravenous drip” that keeps him alive.
As Felix tells his company of players, the island “is a kind of mirror . . . a reflection of his inner self”. Atwood goes one better and creates a veritable hall of mirrors, with each character in the novel being a double for one of Shakespeare’s, and also having a double in the part he then performs in the prison play. To add to this gleeful multiplication, a number of characters play more than one part and some parts are played by more than one character. Atwood’s Miranda is both Felix’s daughter and his reluctant spirit-servant Ariel. Miranda, in the prison production, is played by a gamine actress called Anne-Marie, a kick-ass dancer with “a grip like a jar-opener” who in turn becomes a second daughter for Felix.
Treacherous brother Antonio is translated into Tony Price, a “social-clambering, Machiavellian foot-licker”, dubbed “Evil Bro” by the inmates. His theatrical double is an inmate called Snake Eye, a real-estate scammer before his arrest. As the prison-actors point out, Antonio is also Felix’s evil twin, a monster of his own creation, enabled by Felix’s own vanity and self-absorption. Indeed, in Hag-Seed even the play has a double. But to say more on that would spoil the plot.
The novel’s twin themes are imprisonment and freedom, and the various forms they take. “The theatre isn’t a republic,” Felix rebukes his grumbling cast at one point, “it’s a monarchy.” Atwood follows Shakespeare in questioning the ambiguous nature of Prospero/Felix’s monarchy. For Caliban, the character the inmates in Hag-Seed most want to play, Prospero is not a benevolent despot, but a usurping tyrant and jailer. Ultimately Felix comes to see the uncomfortable truth in this, that Caliban is at some level the hag-seed within himself. “The rarer action is/in virtue than in vengeance,” as his ghostly daughter gently reminds him. If real freedom is to be achieved, the “thing of darkness” must be acknowledged and released.
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. The writer’s ways, as Atwood pointed out in Negotiating with the Dead, are “the ways of the jackdaw: we steal the shiny bits, and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests.” 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.
Rebecca Abrams is author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)
Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold, by Margaret Atwood, Hogarth, RRP£16.99/ RRP$25, 320 pages
Illustration by Clare Mallison