This book is published by Penguin/Knopf Canada in The Hogarth Shakespeare collection. It is a creative retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I am not a huge fan of Shakespeare: the language usually stumps me and the plays I have seen were difficult to follow (and if held outdoors, we got eaten alive by mosquitoes).
Atwood offers a version of the story of revenge where the former creative director of a theater festival seeks revenge on the men that terminated his position. The occasion for revenge takes many years to show up and our mad man (mad in many sense of the word) lives in seclusion until he sees an opportunity to teach in a literacy program for inmates at the local prison. Coincidentally, after a few years of being involved with the program, the two men aforementioned are now government ministers and are scheduled to visit the penitentiary at the time where a literacy session ends and the inmates will be ready to perform the play they have been working on. The teacher gains the collaboration to stage a bit of interactive theater to scare the ministers into continuing funding for the literacy program as well as getting the teacher his former position back.
What I didn’t like in the book:
- Too many coincidences! A coincidence may be a useful device to move action along, but there are many, many coincidences in this book.
- Some parts are a bit too long and I was losing interest.
- The ending is very unrealistic, with the mad man being reinstated in his former position with the theater festival. Too many assumptions here: the position still exists after many years, there wasn’t an incumbent (or one was easy to kick out – see my speculations on what could happen next with this), the mad man was still the right person for the job.
- The teacher smuggles things into the jail way to easily.
What I liked in the book:
- The dialogues are very good and very entertaining.
- I am glad that I stuck through the parts I thought were too long. In the end, it was a rewarding read and I think I have a better understanding of the play.
- There was quite a bit of humor, especially in the interactions with the inmates.
- Showing the inmates are men with existing skills and the ability to develop new skills even though it was not always easy humanized those characters.
- The book ends with a synopsis of the play, which helps to put a lot of the information in the book into context.
One of the exercises that the teacher asks his inmates-students to do at the end of the course is to come up with a story about what happens with a specific character after the end of the play. So I will do that with the character of the teacher in the book.
First option: In order to give the teacher his old job back, the current director had to be reassigned to another position. While he agreed to go along, he nevertheless carries a grudge and spends years waiting for an opportunity for revenge. And on it goes…
Second option: In the short term, the teacher gets what he wants, and all seems to go well for a while. He is getting on in age and is starting to have some short term memory loss. As dementia sets in, he starts having both nightmares and hallucinations in which the vengeful actions he took against the two ministers turn against him. So, similarly to option 1, he becomes himself the victim of revenge even though it is only happening in his own head… One day, in the middle of a very powerful hallucination, he runs across the street is struck by a van. The end.
I suppose there could be many other ways to continue the story. What do you think?
Atwood, Margaret. Hag-Seed. Knopf Canada, 2016.