I love a good Shakespearean remix. I devour everything Margaret Atwood has to offer. I was delighted to come across Hag-Seed, as I am still haunted by her addition to the Canongate Myth Series (Penelopiad) 14 years after reading. Atwood sets her storm in the “summer-stock” theater world of world of far flung Canada. Our Prospero is a wrongfully toppled director of a prestigious theater; toppled by schemes, toppled by loss, and toppled by grief. His island takes the form of a prison, where he rises once again as the lord of all he sees by teaching inmates literacy through Shakespeare. They’ve covered the hits; specifically the bloody justice of Macbeth and Julius Cesar- but now our Prospero, in an act of his own revenge, will draw his company of inmates into a new world of vengeance and freedom by recreating The Tempest within the prison walls.
Margaret Atwood does so many things well. She creates familiar worlds full of horrible and wonderful things. She writes of the past, of the present, and of the future. She has covered non-fiction, poetry, and graphic novels- but good gravy she cannot be trusted with trends or modernity. I adore the MaddAdam Triology (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAdam), but her naming of sports, stores, and designer body augmentations are cringe-worthy. Painball! Chickienobs! RejoovenEsense! Yikes! Fortunately, she does not create any new nouns in this go round, but she does take a stumble in voicing the inmates at the prison.
The inmates have names and backstories. They have motivations, needs, and desires. Their voices though, ugh. Part of the project involves the inmates re-writing Shakespeare’s prose in “their own words” which, while works mostly, becomes embarrassingly icky when Atwood has them “rap”. It is very clear that Margaret Atwood is not a fan of rap, and does not respect (or understand) the artwork that is rap. Rhyming bad, sad, and mad does not a rap make. It feels so clunky in an otherwise beautiful novel. The rap portions feel an awful lot like Michelle Pfeiffer sitting backwards on a chair to “rap” about Bob Dylan in Dangerous Minds. I do not want to spoil the rap portions for you if you choose to read the book- and I do hope that you choose to give it a chance, as it is a skilled adaptation. You’ll enjoy it if you enjoy Atwood, if you enjoy Shakespeare, if you enjoy the power of literature in general- but you will not be so impressed by the *sigh* rapping.