“Brush up on your Shakespeare”. Hogarth Press has commissioned modern authors to write novels based on Shakespeare’s plays. Hag Seed by Margaret Atwood is the famous Canadian author’s offering in this series. Her novel is based on The Tempest, a Shakespeare play that I have never read. I have no real excuse except that I just never got around to it. Now I’m glad that I didn’t. I think Atwood’s book would provide schools with a great precursor to this rather complicated play, although it is probably just as helpful if read after-the-fact. Felix Phillips is the Artistic Director at the Makeshiweg Festival and he gives new scope to Shakespeare by staging productions that are quite edgy and sometimes a bit over-the-edge. He has an assistant who he has perhaps given too much responsibility for all the nuts and bolts jobs that keep theater festivals afloat. Just as Felix is getting his new cloak (pieced together from stuffed animals) ready so that he can become Prospero, Tony breaks the news that Felix’s contract is not being renewed.
As it turns out the contract now belongs to Tony. Felix has lost so much. He lost his wife of one year when she died in childbirth, then he lost his daughter, Miranda (strange coincidence, Miranda is the main female character in The Tempest) to meningitis when she was three. This second huge loss happened very recently. Now he has lost the career he loves. He is old. He married late. He is fifty and is not likely to find another meaty job in theater especially after being let go. He is mourning and he is angry. He wants revenge and he is willing to wait until his main chance arrives to get it.
He goes to ground in a very bare sort of cottage built into the side of a hill with only an iron stove for heat and no indoor plumbing, but an outhouse. He spends nine years in self-imposed exile with only the ghost of his daughter to keep him company. He uses an alias. He is now known as Mr. Duke. In his new persona he takes a job as a teacher of literature at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute where he teaches, you guessed it, Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, he works with minimum security prisoners and he has them act out the plays, records the productions, and then plays them for the entire prison population on closed-circuit television. His course is in great demand.
Finally he gets to put on the play he never got to direct. He gets to put on The Tempest and if you never understood this play you will by the time the inmates and Mr. Duke are done with you. This is a very enjoyable way to learn about or refresh your memory about a Shakespeare play that has a rather complicated plot and lots of deep things to say about humans and the human condition. And it is the perfect vehicle for Felix’s revenge, as if the universe delivered this moment to him because he deserved it. The parallels make the novel fun for those who enjoy symbolism, metaphor, etc.
Hogarth, as I said, has given very famous authors each a play that mates well with the kind of fiction they write. If you go to Google and type Hogarth Shakespeare Series in the search window it will take you to a list of who has been assigned to which play. Some of the books in the series have been written and some are not out yet. Great idea. I hope to eventually read them all. Hag Seed by Margaret Atwood was an excellent place to start.