Are You There Shakespeare? It’s Me, Margaret Atwood


Reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a modern retelling in parallel.

Until recently, my experience reading Shakespeare amounted to a compulsory reading of Macbeth in high-school English class. Although neither the story nor language was suited to my teenage tastes, I’m grateful for the curriculum forcing me out of my comfort zone. Without such mandated exposure, chances were slim I’d have ever picked up a book written before Sweet Valley High (i.e. 1983 – nearly 400 years post-Shakespeare).

Post-Macbeth, my attempts to engage with Shakespearean culture were entirely unsuccessful. I read the first 12 pages of Hamlet on an especially monotonous bus trip; my stalled progress taunted me every time I viewed my Goodreads homepage until I removed it from my ‘currently reading’ shelf some years later. Similarly, I watched approximately seven minutes of Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. It wasn’t as similar to Buffy the Vampire Slayer as I’d hoped. In both instances, I’d convinced myself that Shakespeare was boring and would’ve benefited from some ruthless editing. In truth, I couldn’t understand a damn sentence any of his characters said. I found it boring because it was inaccessible to me.

This is especially embarrassing for someone who considers herself an avid reader to admit. Even more discouraging was realizing that Shakespeare wasn’t categorized as old English, as I’d assumed, but ‘early modern English’. Surely my consumption of contemporary literature had taught me some retro-transferable skills?

In contrast to my efforts with Shakespeare, I was instantly drawn to Atwood’s prose. I first borrowed The Handmaid’s Tale from the university library, having no idea of it’s status as a modern-day classic. Her dystopian world-building and feminist outlook enthralled me so eagerly I read my way through much of her bibliography. I’ve since eased off on the Atwood; I’m diligently pacing myself so I can continue to look forward to reading her less famous works.

Given my boundless enthusiasm for her earlier novels, I’m surprised it took me this long to get my teeth into Hag-Seed. Part of my reluctance may have stemmed from my aversion to Shakespeare – or, more specifically, my aversion to feeling alexic – but I was also underwhelmed by Atwood’s last novel, The Heart Goes Last. I often found myself cringing at the cheesy humour and the story seemed to spiral gradually downward until it’s conclusion, perhaps the most unbearable use of deus ex machina I’ve ever encountered. I questioned whether perhaps it’d be best to leave her newer tomes unturned so as to not tarnish my perception of her as a literary idol.

But I’m so glad I chose to give Hag-Seed the benefit of the doubt.  Not committed enough to buy a copy, I borrowed both Hag-Seed and The Tempest from my university library, with the intention to read them concurrently. In reality, I finished Atwood before the play-script. I was worried I’d miss some of the subtler references due to my unfamiliarity with the original text, but Atwood did a great job of making the comparisons explicit to even a casual reader without contextual knowledge. I’m glad I read them in this order as it allowed me to recall plot-points from Atwood to help make sense of difficult sections of The Tempest.

NOTE: Minor spoilers ahead

I also enjoyed re-assessing Hag-Seed in hindsight, after finishing The Tempest, as I could compare my enjoyment of the novel before and after becoming familiar with the play. Initially, I didn’t quite pick up on the multiple parallels between the inmate actors and the characters they were portraying. For example (without giving much away), the tech-savvy 8Handz isn’t just cast as the spirit Ariel in the prisoner’s adaptation of The Tempest, his role in the book reflects Ariel’s role in the play. However, it was apparent even before reading The Tempest that Felix, Atwood’s eccentric protagonist, shared multiple attributes with Prospero (his chosen role in the play – despite not being a prisoner himself).

Another aspect I found quite touching was Atwood’s efforts to imagine possible fates of the characters after the conclusion of The Tempest. It seems very fitting that a modern retelling would not only re-imagine the characters’ roles within the play, but extend on their journeys beyond the scope of the original playscript.

Was it worth the effort?

Would I recommend this book for someone possessing limited enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s works? Absolutely. In it’s own right, Hag-Seed is an amusing and heartwarming story that can be enjoyed without reference to The Tempest. Additionally, Hag-Seed made tackling Shakespeare a less daunting task. Reading The Tempest was much easier with a modern point of reference and I felt my efforts were rewarded as I was able to find deeper meaning and enjoyment in both versions of the story.

Much to my surprise, I’m now excited to dive into another of Shakespeare’s plays. I’m not sure which yet (let me know if you have any recommendations!), but most likely I’ll pick up another modern retelling at the same time, to help me along the way. Hogarth is publishing a series of modern retellings of Shakespeare classics written by “acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today”. Perhaps I’ll give Hamlet another shot in 2021 when Gillian Flynn releases her version, as indicated in Hogarth’s timeline (below).

The Hogarth Shakespeare project timeline. ©1995-2017 Penguin Random House.

Until next time!


If Not Now, When?

“This is going to be perfect.

So perfect that it’s never going to happen

(No Meat Athlete, Is It Ever Okay to Not Do Your Best?)

No project will ever be more perfect than after that first moment you think of it. I love that moment when you’re caught in the eye of the storm. It’s after you’ve had a brilliant flash of inspiration but before you focus in on those brilliant, hazy hypotheticals, until all you can see is glaring imperfection and the incompleteness inherent in any daydream.

Continue reading If Not Now, When?