CBR10Bingo: This Old Thing (The Tempest) and Birthday (Hag-Seed)
I’m a big fan of Margaret Atwood’s novels. I haven’t read everything she’s written, but I have a shelf full of her books and have loved all but one (sorry, The Heart Goes Last). I always watch for her new releases, and she’s one of the rare exceptions I’ll make to buy hardcover. When Hag-Seed came out a few years ago, I was all excited and ready to buy, until I looked at the cover blurb and saw that it was a modern re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play that I wasn’t familiar with. And so I deferred, waiting to buy until it was released in paperback, and now it’s been on my shelf for over a year because I didn’t want to read it without reading The Tempest first.
I’ve been able to fill most of my CBR10Bingo squares with books I’d already been planning to read, but the more squares I mark, the harder it’s gotten. I’d all but decided that I’d finally read some Jane Austen for the “This Old Thing” square, and I had a list of possible authors for “Birthday” but without anything jumping out at me. And then the moment of inspiration hit: The Tempest was obviously written before 1918, and Atwood’s birthday is November 18. Not quite two birds/one stone, but close enough.
I haven’t read any Shakespeare in several years. I bought a copy of The Pelican Complete Shakespeare about 15 years ago in a fit of inspiration, and I did read several of the plays soon after that. And then it gathered dust for 14 years. I really like this edition since it has footnotes on the page instead of endnotes, and it has introductory essays before every play with background and summary explanations. I started with the essay but quickly moved on to just reading the play, and it was relatively easy to follow.
Prospero was the Duke of Milan until he spent too much time with his magic books and not enough time paying attention to his duties, and his brother Antonio usurped him with the help of Alonso, King of Naples. Prospero and his three-year old daughter Miranda were set adrift on the sea in a leaky boat, expected to drown, but they came to land on a desert island inhabited only by Caliban, a grotesque figure who helped them at first but then started making sexual advances on Miranda. Prospero then tormented Caliban and used his magic to make him a servant along with Ariel, a magical fairy-like spirit indebted to Prospero.
The actual story begins with the titular tempest, a storm at sea that threatens the ship carrying Alonso, Antonio, and their various men home from Tunis after Alonso has married his daughter to the King of Tunis. The storm is only an illusion, however, conjured by Ariel to bring the ship to the island and make its passengers think they’re doomed. Prospero has Ariel bring the men ashore and separate them into small groups so he can play them against each other to exact his revenge. When Ariel balks at helping him any further, Prospero promises to finally release Ariel from his service. Hijinks ensue: Antonio proves himself as traitorous as ever, the prince of Naples falls in love with Miranda, Caliban conspires to kill Prospero and gain rule of the island. Prospero eventually reveals himself and his illusions and promises to spare all if he’s returned as the rightful Duke of Milan and his daughter is married to the prince and future King of Naples. The play ends with Prospero’s words: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, your indulgence set me free.”
In Atwood’s modern re-telling, Prospero’s part is taken by Felix, artistic director at a summer Shakespeare festival who is set to stage his avant-garde take on The Tempest, until he’s usurped by his treacherous assistant, Tony. Felix takes a self-imposed exile, where he despairs and grows mad, thinking he’s been joined by the spirit of his dead daughter, Miranda. He eventually gets a job at a nearby prison to teach literacy, choosing Shakespeare as his vehicle. After a few successful years with the program, he learns his old nemeses are now in high-ranking positions with the national government and plan to visit the prison to observe his program in action. Felix decides to finally stage his Tempest as a way to exact revenge and save the prison’s literacy program.
Atwood introduces several layers of The Tempest in her telling. There are multiple references to the different characters, multiple meanings behind the different plot points. She doesn’t just tell the story in her own way, but instead creates a novel-as-study-guide. Felix stages the play, but he also teaches a class, so we get his explanations to his class of the characters, background, and action. And then they stage their own version, often using their own words to make it easier for their audience — the other prisoners — to understand the meaning. It’s all filmed and then edited together into a video presentation show on closed-circuit television to the prisoners, guards, administrators, and their honored guests. But Felix has his own magic and hijinks in mind for the honored guests, who revert to form when they think there’s been a riot and lockdown.
As a standalone novel, it’s preposterous and not exactly canonical Atwood, but as a modern companion to Shakespeare, it’s bloody brilliant. Shakespeare’s stories are often preposterous themselves, and Atwood plays along and then some. We know it will all work out in the end, of course, because this is a comedy, yet the telling is smart and exciting enough to keep us in doubt until the very end. I didn’t think much of the play itself until I read the novel, which made it so much more vivid. Atwood is clever enough to make only some references obvious, forcing us to think for ourselves to get the full benefit. I’m now tempted to read more of this Hogarth Shakespeare series as a way to get back into reading and enjoying Shakespeare. There’s a reason his works are still being told (and re-told), 400 years later. After all: “What’s past is prologue.”