This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine

Dear Margaret,

You ingeniously managed to fulfill the task of writing a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – and, most importantly, you did it precisely by escaping from this task, taking it to its limits, with the help of some tricks of theatrical illusion. Hag-Seed (2016) is, at the same time, an attempt at dramatizing The Tempest; an exercise in its literary interpretation; and an ingenious escape route from the play itself.

 

Much like Prospero, Felix, artistic director of the prestigious Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, has lost his wife. However, unlike Shakespeare’s protagonist, your Felix has also lost his young daughter Miranda. As an attempt to make her live again through art, he began conceiving of an ambitious production of The Tempest. Before being able to put it into practice, though, Felix is ejected from the Shakespeare festival by Tony, who had lobbied in secret at the theater board against him. Like Milan’s deposed duke, Felix is driven into exile. He withdraws for twelve years to a remote hovel on the edge of town.

Driven mad with grief over the loss of his daughter and his job, and obsessed with revenge, Felix imagines that Miranda is still living with him, keeping him company, in the form of a ghost. He is the only one who can see and talk to her (“What he couldn’t have in life he might still catch sight of through his art”). Meanwhile, he takes a new name as Mr. Duke, and starts working as drama teacher in a prison: Felix, much like a sorcerer, is now the director of The Fletcher Correctional Players; the prison is his remote, enchanted island.

The chance for revenge comes soon: Tony, now a renowned politician, is planning a visit to Fletcher. When Felix learns about it, he decides that his time to stage The Tempest has finally come: a play about revenge seems to be the perfect means to retribution. Felix is not only unconsciously living the play in his exile, he is also using his life to better understand it. The play is a mirror of his life; his life is a guide to his upcoming theatre adaptation. Revenge is the means of freeing himself, and also of letting go of his illusion of Miranda. Loss, much more than retribution, is the hard-beating heart of your novel. “Didn’t the best art have desperation at its core?”

Much like Felix is trying to teach Fletcher’s inmates that The Tempest is not “an odd play full of fairies”, you yourself make clear to the reader that, in fact, “it’s about prisons”. A spell, an island, the need of revenge and the way it builds on itself, death, a theater stage, the play itself – all of those are forms of imprisonment (“The last three words in the play are ‘set me free’, (…) Prospero is a prisoner inside the play he himself has composed.”). Furthermore, this is a play about trying to escape those prisons, and coming back to life, or remaking one’s life and setting oneself free, through art.

The inmates, by staging the play, have the opportunity of letting go of their former selves and of being more than the crimes they had committed (“Watching the many faces watching their own faces as they pretended to be someone else – Felix found that strangely moving. For once in their lives, they loved themselves”); Felix, by directing the play, has the opportunity of letting go of his yearning for revenge; finally, and more ambiguously, revenge through a play is the means by which Miranda herself can be set free.

As with The Tempest – “a play about a man producing a play”, a play explicitly concerned with its own nature as a play-, theatricality is at the core of you novel: as Felix is staging the play, you yourself is also staging it in your book; both of you have, as such, magical powers – Felix, over the inmates, over Miranda and over his nemesis; you, over your characters, over the play and over us, your readers. At your hands, the business of retelling Shakespeare is primarily a case of adapting his play – and, like Prospero, an opportunity for conjuring up a storm. By focusing on its theatricality, you also manage to desacralize the play and its author, while at the same time reafirming its character as a classic, and hinting at its universal claim as such (“Shakespeare has something for everyone, because that’s who his audience was: everyone, from high to low and back again”; “‘But Shakespeare is such a classic!’ Too good for them, was what she meant. ‘He had no intention of being a classic!'”).

As a good work of illusionism, the play within the play within your book, The Tempest is also an ingenious game of mirrors. And you use this feature, in order to instil the book with an interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. “Hag-seed” is the way Prospero calls Caliban, who is the son – the seed – of a witch. But Caliban can also be read as a reflection of Prospero himself, his “thing of darkness”, a symbol of Prospero’s yearning for revenge, which threatens to destroy him and his daughter (“Caliban is like his bad other self.”). Ariel, on the other hand, can be read as Prospero’s higher side, a more moral, enlightened one.

Prospero is banished from Milan for as long as those sides remain in conflict. When Prospero enacts his revenge, he is released from it – but, at the same time, he is also stricken by the loss of the object of his hate.  His victory is just mirroring his defeat. Only then, can Prospero accept Caliban as part of himself (“this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”); and only then, can he set Ariel free (“then to the elements be free, and fare thou well”), abandoning his magic powers and subjecting himself to the audience’s judgement (“as you from crimes would pardon’d be, let your indulgence set me free”). The storm is as much an illusion as his revenge itself. But along with the tempest, comes a sea change.

The book acknowledges the play’s ambiguous sense of justice: only by enacting revenge is Prospero/ Felix able to forgive; retribution brings victory, but also a sense of loss; Prospero/ Felix can only renounce magic by using it; victory is also a form of surrender; redemption and elation can only be achieved by renouncing power and magic (“Is extreme goodness always weak? Can a person bve good only in the absense of power?”).

As The Tempest is a game of mirrors within itself, so is your book. The island and the play are only magic insofar as “each one sees in it a reflection of his inner self.” If Prospero has magic powers and acts as a playwright by asking the audience for applause, Felix has the ability to create theatrical illusions; if Prospero conjures up a storm, Felix conjures up The Tempest, and offers Tony an interactive theater experience; if Arial is an airy spirit, Miranda is a trick of light, and both are deprived of freedom by Prospero/Felix; if Shakespeare’s Ariel frequently disguises himself as a nymph, a harpy, and Ceres, your own Ariel comes in the form of Miranda; as Prospero mirrors the role of an author creating a story around himself, so do you, mirroring Shakespeare’s own role, by adapting his play; by engaging us into playing along with you; by creating characters as if you were casting actors; by tricking them into doing what you want; and finally, by setting them free, “melted into air, into thin air”. 

The Tempest is also about second chances, and that is what retellings, reviews and interpretations also are: attempts at redemption, shy acts of forgiveness, efforts of affection, silent conversations, letters in disguise, second chances all enclosed in themselves, prisons made of thin air, melting.

Yours truly,

J.


emil-nolde-the-sea-1930
Emil Nolde. The Sea. 1930.

As for his other enterprise, the secret one, he must keep the thread tight in his grasp. He must follow it forward into darkness.

– Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed

“Felix is intrigued: caliban has escaped the play. He’s escaped from Prospero, like a shadow detaching itself from its body and skulking off on its own. Now there’s no one to restrain him. Will Prospero be spared, or will retribution climb in through his window one dark night and cut his weasand?”

– Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed

“What to do with such sorrow? It was like an enormous black cloud boiling up over the horizon. No: it was like na blizzard. No: it was like nothing he could put into language. He couldn’t face it head-on. He had to transform it, or at the very least enclose it.”

– Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed

“He’s been chewing over his revenge for twelve years – it’s been in the background, a constant undercurrent like an ache.”

– Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed


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2 Comments Add yours

  1. bookbii says:

    Great review Juliana. I have very mixed views about Atwood: when she’s good she’s excellent but there’s significant range in her work. This sounds like a really good one; Atwood seems to excel at adaptation. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend her Penelopiad, which is a re-telling of the Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope.

    Like

    1. juliana says:

      Thank you! I agree with you, she has her high and lows – but she tries her hand at some many genres, I admire her boldness. And yes, I agree that the Penelopiad is a great great book – one of my favourites of hers! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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