Table of Contents
Hag-Seed is the story of Felix, a theatre director dismissed from a Canadian theatre festival, who starts teaching Shakespeare in a jail, and plans his vengeance on the men who betrayed him while performing a production of The Tempest.
Part I - Dark Backward
Explains Felix’s backstory. His wife Nadia died after childbirth, and his three-year-old daughter Miranda died of meningitis complications. Following these events, Felix became obsessed with staging a ludicrous production of The Tempest in which he would play the lead, Prospero, who also has a daughter named Miranda. As Felix became increasingly preoccupied with The Tempest, his assistant Tony was conspiring to take over his job by gradually taking on more of the managerial and financial facets of the role.
Tony notified Felix one day that the board had voted to replace Felix as artistic director with Tony, and that his production of The Tempest would be cancelled. Felix relocated to a remote rural home and began plotting his vengeance. When he was home, he imagined his daughter Miranda was still alive and had conversations with her. Felix took a job teaching Shakespeare in a jail because he was afraid of being so alone.
Part II - A Brave New Kingdom
Felix has successfully staged three plays in the prison for the Fletcher Correctional Players. His supervisor warns him that several politicians, including Tony, will be reviewing this year’s production to determine whether or not the initiative should proceed. Felix confirms that The Tempest will be staged for this year’s production. Felix recruits an actress named Anne-Marie to play Miranda, and the remainder of the characters are played by the students in the jail. Felix will assume the role of Prospero.
Part III – “These Our Actors”
The cast rehearse the play and Felix comes up with a plan to get his revenge against Tony when he attends the performance.
Part IV – “Rough Magic”
Felix and the cast prepare for the production. Felix and the cast are getting ready for the show. Tony and the other leaders arrive at the jail. Instead of a pre-recorded performance of The Tempest, they are exposed to an elaborate theatre environment in which the cast (under Felix’s direction) stage a fabricated prison riot, making the men fear for their life while still performing excerpts from The Tempest. Felix overhears Tony and another man discussing murdering one of the other politicians and blaming it on the prison riot. Felix uses this as leverage to blackmail Tony, reclaim his position as Artistic Director of the theatre festival, and secure future funding for the Fletcher Correctional Players.
Part V - “This Thing of Darkness”
The cast celebrate their success at saving the program and give their final reports about The Tempest.
Felix has his job back at the theatre festival and is making plans to go on a cruise where he will give lectures about the Fletcher Correctional Players. Felix finally lets go of the ghost of his daughter Miranda.
Historical Context of Hag-Seed
Hag-seed is Margaret Atwood’s adaptation of The Tempest by William Shakespeare for a 1970s audience. While the Tempest was targeted to a 1600s European audience who actively benefited from colonialism, Hag-seed was written for an audience who were more opposed to slavery and subjugation. For example, Prospero (a European) subjugates the residents of the island in the Tempest, exploiting their abilities for his personal gain. Atwood appropriates the themes, while changing the setting to a modern prison, drawing consistent parallels between the mass incarceration that prevails in Western nations today, disproportionately targeting minority communities, and the colonialist regimes that have oppressed those minorities for centuries. As a witness to (and direct beneficiary of) the origins of these oppressive systems, Shakespeare’s perspective on contemporary issues can be contrasted with Atwood’s throughout the novel.
“The last three words Prospero says are “Set me free.” But free from what? In what has he been imprisoned? I started counting up the prisons and imprisonments in the book. There are a lot of them. In fact, every one of the characters is constrained at some point in the play. This was suggestive. […] So I decided to set my novel in a prison” (Atwood, 2016).
Atwood has deliberately amplified The Tempest’s prismatic entanglements of captivity. Imprisonment in both texts is literal and metaphorical.
Prospero and Miranda have been confined to a ‘poor cell’. Ariel and Caliban have had their freedom curtailed by Prospero. Imprisonment for Prospero has enabled him to refine his Art and re-discover his humanity. Felix is confined to the hut where he lives as the retired schoolteacher Mr Duke and the correctional facility itself where he prepares his Tempest
“This is the extent of it, Felix muses. My island domain. My place of exile. My penance. My theatre”.
Felix states “Oh, the actors will relate to it, all right … It’s about prisons” and at the end of the play he says “… The Tempest is a play about a man producing a play – one that’s come out of his own head, his “fancies” – so maybe the fault for which he needs to be pardoned is the play itself … The last three words in the play are “set me free”’, says Felix. ‘You don’t say “set me free” unless you’re not free. Prospero is a prisoner inside the play he himself has composed. There you have it: the ninth prison is the play itself.”
Felix has been exiled for 12 years away from the world of theatre. He is a prisoner of his grief and guilt. He believes that the production of The Tempest would set his Miranda free but she is ironically trapped in his imagination - “And the photo of his Miranda, of course. He always kept it near him… And now she would have to stay locked behind the glass, because, with the destruction of his Tempest, the new Miranda – the Miranda that he’d been intending to create, or possibly to resurrect – was dead in the water.”
Atwood focuses on The Tempest’s theme of revenge and, like Shakespeare, conveys how it is not revenge that instigates change, it is forgiveness of the self and then others.
The novel’s focus on revenge is evident in the epigraphs:
“The three epigraphs in the novel are quotes from Sir Francis Bacon, Charles Dickens and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Bacon’s quote from “On Revenge” reads, “‘This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge,/ keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise/ would heal, and do well”’. Taken from Charles Dickens is the quote: “… although there are nice people on the stage, there are some who would make your hair stand on end.’”. The quote by Shelley are from “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills”: “Other flowering isles must be/ In the sea of Life and Agony: / Other spirits float and flee/ O’er that gulf…”. The epigraphs work dialogically as they highlight the theme of revenge…” (Jayendran, 2018).
During the Jacobean period, vengeance was discouraged with the advent of King James’ version of the Bible that is more about compassion and forgiveness rather than a wrathful God. Yet, Prospero is determined to avenge the loss of his dukedom at the hands of a brother he trusted – “these, mine enemies, are all knit up”. Caliban whose control of the island he loves has been usurped by Prospero also seeks revenge “Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake, / Or cut his wezand with thy knife.”
Felix’s desire for revenge has been spurred by Tony’s betrayal. Thus, the “sole drift of [Felix’s] purpose doth extend” is to make Tony and Sal (the Heritage Minister) atone for their wrongdoing. “Suddenly revenge is so close he can actually taste it. It tastes like steak, rare.” Felix torments his enemies in a drug-infused real-life production of The Tempest in a similar fashion to the banquet for Prospero’s enemies.
Both Prospero and Felix realise that seeking retribution does not set them free.
Themes, Quotes, and Techniques
|Power and Authority||“We could put them on show,” says TimEEz. “Gibbering lunatics. Street people. Addicts. Dregs of society. Always good for a laugh” – Irony of the prisoners gaining power||Situational Irony Parataxis|
|Power and Authority||“Prospero thinks he’s so awesome and superior, he can put down what other people think” and “He call me poison, a filth, a slave,/ He prison me up to make me behave,/ But I’m Hag-Seed!” – 8Handz and Leggs||Colloquialism Rhyme||Colonialism and Postcolonialism|
|Deception and Manipulation||“That devious, twisted bastard, Tony, is Felix’s own fault” and “The secrecy, the sabotage. The snake-like subterfuge. The stupendous betrayal.”||Anadiplosis Sibilance Simile|
|Colonialism and Postcolonialism||“Your profanity, thinks Felix, has often been your whoreson hag-born progenitor of literacy.”||Intertextuality|
|Colonialism and Postcolonialism||“We all wrote it together. We’re writing, like, a musical… Why shouldn’t Caliban have a play to himself?”||Rhetorical Question Colloquialism|
|Colonialism and Postcolonialism||“Ain’t gonna any more lick your feet/ Or walk behind you on the street, / Ain’t gonna get on the back of the bus, / And you can give our land right back to us!”||Rhyme Historical Allusion|
|Imprisonment and Freedom||“This is the extent of it, Felix muses. My island domain. My place of exile. My penance. / My theatre.”||Parataxis|
|Imprisonment and Freedom||“‘To the elements be free’, he says to her./ And, finally, she is” – Felix letting go of Miranda||Intertextuality Parataxis||Grief and Mortality|
|Performance and Illusion||“What he couldn’t have in life he might still catch sight of through his art: just a glimpse, from the corner of his eye” – Felix using art as catharsis||Metaphor||Forgiveness and Transformation|
|Performance and Illusion||“It’s the words that should concern you, he thinks at them. That’s the real danger. Words don’t show up on scanners.” – Felix||Hyperbole|
|Performance and Illusion||“…the island is a theatre. Prospero is a director. He’s putting on a play within which there’s another play. If his magic holds and his play is successful, he’ll get his heart’s desire.” – Felix||Parataxis|
|Forgiveness and Transformation||“When you walk in here, you shed your daily self. You become a clean slate. Then you draw on a new face.”||Metaphor|
|Forgiveness and Transformation||“…it’s Ariel who changes Prospero’s mind, from revenge to forgiveness, because despite the crap they did, he feels sorry for the bad guys” – 8Handz and Team Ariel||Colloquialism|
|Truth and Perspective||“It is real… More than real. Hyper-real. You’ll see.” – Felix describing the play, metatextuality||Foreshadowing||Performance and Illusion|
|Truth and Perspective||“But everything is ephemeral, he reminds himself. All gorgeous palaces, all cloud-capped towers. Who should know that better than he?” – Felix talking about life||Intertextuality Rhetorical Question|
|Grief and Mortality||“He needed to get his Tempest back… his Miranda must be released from her glass coffin; she must be given a life”||Metaphor||Performance and Illusion|
|Grief and Mortality||“…didn’t the best art have desperation at its core? Wasn’t it always a challenge to Death? A defiant middle finger on the edge of the abyss?"||Rhetorical Question||Performance and Illusion|