Felix is a brilliant, eccentric, and difficult artistic director of a popular and successful theater festival in Canada, something like the Stratford Festival. He focuses so much on the art of his job, he neglects the commerce, allowing Tony to pick up the slack and deal with the tedious work of schmoozing funders and writing grants and dealing with the Board of Directors. So of course, Tony engineers a coup and he is summarily fired, unable to even say goodbye to his company.
Felix was blindsided and doubly angered because Tony stepped into the breach while Felix was grieving, first the loss of his wife in childbirth and then, just three years later, the death of his daughter Miranda from meningitis. Tony took advantage of his grief and distraction to rob him of his life’s work. Worse, he kept Felix from his crowning achievement, a production of The Tempest that would bring Miranda back to him. Just as Prospero was robbed by Antonio, Felix was robbed by Tony. Hag-Seed is the story of Felix after this betrayal, the story of exile and revenge. It is, in fact, The Tempest brought to contemporary Canada.
His route to revenge is the focus of this story. Felix takes a job teaching literacy at a prison. He throws out the conventional curriculum and teaches Shakespeare and produces each season a new play that is filmed and shown to the entire prison. It is enormously successful and brings us the most thrilling and fascinating part of the book, Felix teaching Shakespeare. The pedagogy on display makes me wish I had Margaret Atwood for a teacher. This is teaching at its finest.
I don’t think Margaret Atwood is capable of writing a bad book and Hag-Seed is certainly a good book. However, there is a logical flaw, an inconsistency that mars the book for me. More than once, we are assured that the minimum security prisoners are men who committed non-violent crimes, frauds, cheating, embezzling, so we need not worry they would be violent. Felix makes this very explicit when hiring an actress to play Miranda. However, the revenge plot depends on that fundamental truth to be untrue when it comes to our bad guy Tony. His crimes are not murder and violence, but betrayal and smarmy brown-nosing for power.
Otherwise, it’s an inventive and fun re-imagination of Shakespeare. I really came to adore Felix and many of the other characters. Things happened a bit too perfectly, but that’s Shakespeare for you.
It turns out it is the fourth in the Hogarth Shakespeare Series, and now I have to read the rest of them. Shakespeare re-created for today by today’s best writers. What fun!
- Margaret Atwood web site
- Hag-Seed at Penguin Random House
- Hogarth Shakespeare Series at Penguin Random House