During the school year, when you feel like readings are piled up to your ears, reading for fun can seem like a ridiculous idea—but it shouldn’t. Reading is the fastest way for you to make an escape into the world of your choosing, and expand your vocabulary without even knowing it. The underappreciated world of literature offers endless benefits, so without further ado, check out this week’s read.
If you’re looking for a fun, breezy way to brush up on your Shakespeare before exams roll around, don’t bother dusting off that old Coles Notes pamphlet that’s stashed under your bed. Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed has got you covered.
In her latest novel, Atwood tries her hand at conjuring up a modern retelling of The Tempest, which holds the distinction of being the last play that William Shakespeare ever wrote. The plot of this 2016 interpretation follows the beats of the original text in broad strokes: a beardy old man,Felix, is banished from his domain as the arts director of a theatre festival and takes 12 years to get back at the backstabbing politicians who wronged him.
But instead of summoning a storm to wreak havoc like his Shakespearean counterpart, Felix is content with getting a bunch of prisoners to reenact The Tempest and using that production as his tool of revenge.
It goes without saying that wackiness ensues from this point on.
Of course, repackaging Shakespeare into a modern setting can be a disastrous project, especially if the person in charge doesn’t fully grasp the intricacies of what makes the original play work in the first place. Luckily, Atwood definitely knows her stuff and utilizes this intimate understanding of the text to drive the plot forward.
Since Felix’s cast of prisoners lack formal education he’s forced to give them a crash course in the play’s plot, characters, and themes before they can start acting it out. This means a large chunk of Hag-Seed consists of scenes that wouldn’t seem out of place in an introductory Shakespeare class in high school, where a quirky English teacher tries to get his students invested in a 400-year-old play by bringing it down to their level.
One of the more endearing examples of this dynamic is when Felix bans conventional profanity in class and forces these hardened criminals to swear using archaic terms from the play, like “plague” and “poxy” instead.
Admittedly, this meta element does get tiring at times. Atwood has an irritating habit of bringing the revenge plot to a screeching halt so her characters can get into the kind of high-minded literary debates you might overhear at your local hipster coffee shop.
But thankfully, underneath that veneer of literary pretension, Atwood manages to inject the rest of the novel with enough humour and easy-to-read prose to make this story accessible to non-Shakespeare fans. At the same time, the text is full of plenty of winks and nods to The Bard’s legacy, which should satisfy even his most ardent fans.
In the end, while Hag-Seed comes off as being more of an edutainment product rather than a standalone novel, it’s still relentlessly engaging and fun to read. But that doesn’t mean it is devoid of any deeper meaning, since Atwood manages to make a great case for the rehabilitatory potential found in literature and the arts.
Also, for those of you who skipped Jacobean Shakespeare this semester because you were too busy having a social life, reading this novel might give you a fighting chance at passing that final exam.
For extra credit, you can check out the other novels distributed by Hogarth Shakespeare, a company that specializes in publishing modern retellings of The Bard’s classic works.