4 Reasons why Atwood’s Hag-Seed is as relevant as ever.
Written by Dani Vee
There’s plenty of discussion about Atwood’s dystopian novel and its television adaption The Handmaid’s Tale, and rightly so. It’s a novel that remained with me long after I finished it, and if you haven’t read it I highly recommend you do. In today’s social and political climate where absolutely anything can happen, speculative fiction has never been so relevant. I put it right up there with Brave New World and 1984.
However, what about Atwood’s other work? Hag-Seed has recently been placed on the 2019–2023 English HSC prescriptions list. The new list has included Hag-Seed for English Advanced Module A, Textual Conversations; a comparative study of texts including Hag-Seed alongside Shakespeare’s tragicomedy The Tempest. Atwood’s novel was commissioned by Random House as a part of its Hogarth Shakespeare series of retellings of Shakespeare plays — meaning I suddenly have a whole new series of books to read! The NSW HSC Module A states that students consider the ways that a reimagining or reframing of an aspect of a text might mirror, align or collide with details of another text. These texts are so well aligned that I think students would easily find meaningful links to enhance their understanding of the play.
A modern retelling of The Tempest, the novel centers around eccentric, deeply flawed yet likeable theatre director Felix (based on Shakespeare’s Prospero), hell bent on revenging those who wronged him. Set in a modern day prison, the novel is darkly humorous and engaging mainly as a result of how the play is renewed by the prisoners who perform it within the walls of Fletcher Correctional directed by Felix. Soliloquies turn into foot stomping raps and Shakespeare’s characters are appropriated to better suit the inmates, such as Ariel’s transformation from fairy to alien. The best thing about this novel besides its clever retelling of The Tempest — it is in effect a play within a play within a novel — is character development. Felix could easily have become a caricature or cliché of the theatre but Atwood provides a compelling and disturbing backstory that haunts Felix throughout the novel, ensuring he is an empathetic figure bordering on madness.
Felix wavers between reality and insanity, his hallucinations become a way for him to try and make sense of the grief that has consumed him. However, in true Atwood style, and in line with the magic of The Tempest, there is one moment where his hallucinations become something more than a figment of his imagination and there remains the possibility that perhaps he isn’t as mad as we thought after all.
Although the text doesn’t pack as much punch as The Handmaid’s Tale, hence my belief that the text is somewhat underrated comparatively speaking, Hag-Seed (and The Tempest) are as relevant to our lives as ever.
1. Each one of us is imprisoned.
Atwood sets the novel in a prison, Felix explains that prison is ‘any place or situation that you’ve been put in against your will, that you don’t want to be in, and that you can’t get out of.’ Like the novel, Shakespeare’s play consists of multiple prisons — the most obvious being the island itself. However, Felix’s idea that prison is anywhere one is held against their will means that each one of us is fighting our way out of some kind of metaphorical prison — be it work, a relationship, grief, the way we are perceived by others versus the way we wish to be perceived, societal expectations, mental illness, our families and our pasts.
2. The novel provides social commentary.
The prisoners’ capabilities and needs are underestimated. It’s accepted that the prisoners are incapable of engaging with Shakespeare, however through Felix’s belief and determination, the inmates not only engage with the performances but they deliver thorough and detailed presentations about characters once the play is complete. It also reiterates that Shakespeare transcends time with a wide audience.
3. We really suck at dealing with grief.
Felix blames himself for the death of his daughter, and then uses the theatre to escape from reality. When Felix is fired by Tony, he escapes reality by living in a hovel and imagining his daughter’s presence within the house. These imaginings become blurred with his reality until a scene in the prison where we are no longer certain these imaginings are all in Felix’s head. However, the novel points out how terrible we are at dealing with grief and how we continually seek to run from pain when it only serves to magnify it. It asks the question; if we do not subscribe to religion what do we believe in? In this case Shakespeare becomes a type of religion for Felix, as he uses it to re-connect with his daughter Miranda through the character Prospero, and uses the play to protect his daughter from harm, something he was unable to do in reality.
4. We could all do with a little magic.
The Tempest is full of magic, and sometimes we need to believe that magic or fate or angels (or even love) will save us from the harsh realities of loss and fear and revenge. We need to believe that among the hardship, we will find some magic in our lives.
As far as Atwood’s novels go, Hag-Seed is definitely one of her more underrated texts. In order to enjoy the ride you don’t need any knowledge of Shakespeare’s play, although if you do it will make the book that more enjoyable!