Lisa Gorton reviews 'Hag-Seed: The Tempest retold' by Margaret Atwood

The Tempest is a play set on a ship. In the first scene, the ship is wrecked. ‘All lost ... all lost.’ The play is over. The play begins again. To one side of the stage, on an island a girl is watching. She is defined by watching: ‘O I have suffered with those that I saw suffer.’ The girl has been watching what we have been watching; she is a watcher on the stage, and she is the play’s new beginning. The play opens, this second time, with a kind of creation story. For the first time, her father, Prospero, tells Miranda how she came to be where she lives. It is an old story: a brother’s betrayal, a long journey at sea, a miraculous survival. This strange, subtle, unsettling scene plays out on stage the relationship between a storyteller and his listener, whose name means ‘wonder, admiration’. The story comes to life in her, and the drowned sailors crawl from the sea.

This scene between Prospero and Miranda figures the change in Shakespeare’s later plays from considerations of history – character, power, and circumstance – to considerations of time, its wreckages and renewals. The change is perhaps comparable to the development of total theatre: the power of these plays depends not on the internal logic of their stories but on the unfolding of strange and marvellous effects. A woman brought back to life from her coffin, a live bear on the stage, a statue which comes to life: as Paulina says in The Winter’s Tale, ‘It is requir’d / you do awake your faith’. These late plays are now called romances, which in Shakespeare’s time were old, marvellous, digressive adventure stories. Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest: all are plays of long sea voyages, fantastical chance, and sudden violence, characters thought dead brought back to life; all but Cymbeline have at their heart the relationship between fathers and daughters.

Hag-Seed takes its place in the Hogarth Shakespeare project which (from the press release) ‘sees Shakespeare’s works retold by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today’. Hag-Seed is Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest. She tells it as though it were realism. Her Prospero is called Felix, artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival. After the prologue, in two brief chapters, Felix summarises how he came to be where he is. His wife died after giving birth; his daughter Miranda died at the age of three. In his grief, he decided to stage The Tempest. At that point, his trusted producer Tony went behind his back, had him sacked, and took his place. Felix spent years hidden away with his rage and grief. At long last, under a false name, he started to direct plays in a men’s prison. It is through his staging of The Tempest that he seeks revenge. His revenge is the action of the book.

With his prison cast, he writes up on a whiteboard what the play is about.

‘I’ll start with the keynotes,’ Felix continues. ‘These are the important things to look for when we’re figuring out how to present this play.’ Using the blue marker, he writes: IT’S A MUSICAL... music used for what? MAGIC: Used for what? PRISONS: How many? MONSTERS: Who is one? REVENGE; Who wants it? Why?

Atwood is always a clever and amusing writer, edgily self-aware. Her retelling of The Tempest is itself built around these ‘keynotes’. ‘The island is a prison,’ says Felix, and Atwood’s novel is set for the most part in a prison. Hag-Seed is not so much a retelling of The Tempest as an essay in novel form on its keynotes. But Felix has written nothing on the whiteboard about fathers and daughters, wonder, recovery, renewal, or forgiveness. In the First Folio, The Tempest was printed as the first of the Comedies.

The Tempest took inspiration from a true strange story: in 1609 a fleet of nine ships on their way to the colony of Virginia met with a storm. This storm separated the ship Sea-Adventure from its fleet. The leaky ship foundered on the rocks of Bermuda. All on board were saved. In his True Reportory of the Wracke, which Shakespeare almost certainly read, the survivor Strachey noted of these islands:

such tempests, thunders and other fearefull objects are seene and heard about them, that they be called commonly, The Devils Ilands, and are feared and avoided ... Yet it pleased our mercifull God, to make even this hideous and hated place, both the place of our safetie, and meanes of our deliverance ... whereas indeed wee find them now by experience, to bee as habitable and commodious as most Countries of the same climate and situation ...

Atwood’s descriptions of the prison setting are the strongest part of Hag-Seed, along with the songs that her prisoners make up. But in The Tempest the island is only a prison insofar as a play is a list of themes. The island is also the ‘meanes of ... deliverance’ of Prospero and Miranda. For Caliban, it is a bounteous kingdom, and home. ‘Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight ...’

There is remarkably little in Hag-Seed of what is natural, a word rich in meaning in Renaissance England: untrained, blood-tied, fertile, generative. But the generative work of time is at the heart of The Tempest. After the first wreck, the play continues forward in time. Like The Tempest, Hag-Seed opens with a disorienting scene. After that, though, its story goes back in time: its driving force is not renewal but explanation. Miranda is dead from the start. ‘MAGIC: Used for what?’ writes Felix.

Miranda haunts Hag-Seed. Felix communicates not with the living girl but with the ghost of her. In this, perhaps Atwood recalls Daphne du Maurier’s memorable and disconcerting novella The Breakthrough (1966), in which the soul of a dead child is trapped in a kind of life-support machine in communication with another person. Miranda’s ghost remains an uncertain, flimsy presence in Hag-Seed, and this makes the novel a strangely limited reading of the play. Giving up a ghost from the past is not the same as handing a child into her future. ‘REVENGE’, writes Felix on the whiteboard. For Prospero, though, revenge is part of a wider work of renunciation. He marries his daughter to the son of an enemy. She will live in the enemy’s kingdom. ‘O brave new world,’ says Miranda, as the play ends. ‘Tis new to thee,’ says Prospero.

Miranda The Tempest John William Waterhouse 1916Miranda – The Tempest by John William Waterhouse, 1916 (Wikimedia Commons)

In the late plays, in the archetypal relationship between fathers and daughters, Shakespeare works out his drama of time and renewal. He brings Time the Chorus onto the stage with an hourglass to open the second part of The Winter’s Tale: ‘since it is in my power / to o’erthrow law, and in one self-born hour / To plant and o’erwhelm custom’. Time turns his hourglass: the play passes over sixteen years; it turns from the court of Leontes to the summer festival of his lost daughter Perdita. In Hag-Seed, with Miranda dead, time’s great hourglass never turns over.

Why kill off Miranda? Perhaps, in turning her into a ghost, Atwood is reflecting on Miranda’s odd, exclamatory way of speaking: ‘O wonder!’ This is the trouble with turning one of Shakespeare’s late plays into a novel of character-driven realism. Considered in such terms, Miranda is hard material to work with. So would the character of Time be. Marina in Pericles, Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, and Miranda in The Tempest: the young women are in these late plays like a force of nature: strong, eloquent, triumphant, they have an archetypal simplicity. Their mode is astonishment. They say simply what they mean. This is the quality that Auden captures in his brilliant poetic commentary on The Tempest. In The Sea and the Mirror (1944), Auden’s poem for Miranda is fittingly at once lucid and riddling: ‘My Dear One is mine as mirrors are lonely, / And the high green hill sits always by the sea ...’

Atwood is a diverting, clever, spirited writer, and Hag-Seed has all these qualities. As a retelling of The Tempest, though, it makes me wonder why the Hogarth Press did not instead ask Atwood to retell Measure for Measure.

Published in November 2016, no. 386

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