“We are such stuff as dreams are made on” is what Prospero, deposed duke of Milan and shipwrecked magician, says in “The Tempest.” Nowadays, though, what we’re most likely to hear is “the stuff that dreams are made of.” Just so, the Hogarth Shakespeare project, commissioning today’s writers to reconfigure some of the Bard’s biggest hits, has retuned the plays to contemporary ears — much as Shakespeare himself recast stories from myth and history for his own contemporaries.
Following Jeanette Winterson’s take on “The Winter’s Tale” and Anne Tyler’s on “The Taming of the Shrew,” Margaret Atwood has taken on “The Tempest” in “Hag-Seed” — and it’s a thoroughly entertaining romp through the theater of revenge and redemption.
Felix, our Prospero, erstwhile director of a Canadian Shakespeare theater, has been ousted by his own Antonio, an “evil-hearted, social-clambering, Machiavellian foot-licker,” and after 12 years in exile is teaching in the Literacy Through Literature program in the Fletcher County Correctional Institute. There, upon learning that his usurper, now a minister, will be touring the facility, he stages a version of “The Tempest” to exact revenge and right the many wrongs done to him.
The cast and crew, a colorful ensemble of criminals, offer amusing variations on Shakespeare’s dramatis personae (and are confined to swearing in Shakespearean terms — “hag-seed,” e.g., being the curse applied to Caliban, island imp born of the witch Sycorax).
Confinement, of course, is the curse that courses through the story, and saddest of all is Felix’s own prison of grief with the spirit of his daughter, Miranda, dead at the tender age of 3 and haunting the proceedings. Her freedom, and his, are indeed the stuff that dreams are made of, a feat of Margaret Atwood’s fecund re-imagining.
Ellen Akins is a writer and teacher of writing in Wisconsin. On the web at ellenakins.com.
By: Margaret Atwood.
Publisher: Hogarth, 320 pages, $25.