When I first heard of Hogarth’s Shakespeare Series, modern retellings of various Shakespeare plays by various novelists, I was mildly intrigued by the concept.
When I first realized that my favorite Shakespeare, The Tempest, was being reinterpreted by Margaret Atwood, I immediately added it to my must-read list….and promptly forgot about it for a couple of months while I waited for it to arrive from the long queue at the library. But at last, it arrived and was promptly devoured within 3 days of reading.
As you would imagine, the story follows that of the original play, with a few modern twists. No longer the Duke of Milan usurped by his scheming brother, Felix (Prospero) is the long-time artistic director of a Canadian theater festival, known for his avant-garde Shakespeare productions that win the critics and fall flat with audiences who do not expect Macbeth wielding a chainsaw and splattering the front rows with fake gore. After the deaths of his wife and child, he throws himself into planning his masterpiece: a production of The Tempest, as a way of bringing his daughter, Miranda, “back to life.” His more business-minded partner Tony (Antonio) conspires with a politico higher-up named Sal (Alonso) to have Felix fired from his position and essentially forced into retirement as they paint him as an “undesirable” in the theater community.
Felix is a Prospero who has lost far more than Shakespeare’s version- he is both a widower and a father who has lost his three year old daughter to illness shortly before his downfall. Instead of an island inhabited with spirits, Felix retreats to a solitary cottage off the grid, to ruminate on his losses and dream of revenge. But is he truly alone? As the years go by, Felix begins to imagine his lost Miranda stranded with him in his exile, and his idle daydreams turn more concrete as he begins to hear her voice and watch her grow up. Felix’s grasp on reality is tenuous, yet at times, the reader isn’t quite sure how delusional he truly is, especially when Miranda starts to intrude into other characters’ actions, even when they cannot see her.
Felix ends up taking an unexpectedly enjoyable job under a pseudonym, teaching and performing Shakespeare with convicts as part of a literacy program in a medium security prison. Twelve years after his exile, he discovers three things a) Sal and Tony have now risen to become powerful cabinet ministers b) the government wants to cut the funds for the prison literacy program and c) two government representatives will be attending the program’s latest performance for a photo op: Sal and Tony. As fate aligns to bring all the pieces together, Felix decides to stage his delayed production of The Tempest as the vehicle for his long-desired revenge.
As you would expect with Margaret Atwood, the writing is a sharp mix of humor and poignant moments. She pokes gentle fun at the theater and its pretensions through Felix’s past theatrical performances and his dramatic manners. Yet the novel also illustrates the transformative power and the timelessness of theater, both for the actors and the audience. The convicts revel in becoming another person, shedding their own mistakes and flaws for that of their character’s. Far from being too high-brow for their tastes, the convicts instantly connect with the primal themes of power, morality, and violence in Shakespeare’s tragic/historical plays, issues that have determined the course of their own lives and criminal pasts. Despite their initial misgivings about a performance featuring singing fairies and romance, they embrace The Tempest’s themes of revenge vs mercy and escaping both literal and symbolic prisons.
This novel is a joyous celebration of both Shakespeare and theater in general. Even if you have never read The Tempest, you can still enjoy it. (Atwood provides a handy little summary in the back!). I look forward to the remaining Hogarth Shakepeares, if they are all as wonderful as this.