Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is one of hundreds of rewritings of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. The adaptations began just over a decade after its first performance, in 1611, and for the past four hundred years this has perhaps been Shakespeare’s most adapted play: as melodrama, light opera, graphic novel, B-movie. This is sensible, for the play itself dwells upon and considers adaptation in all its forms. Its central questions concern translation, replacement, and substitution. Prospero, true Duke of Milan, is usurped by his brother Antonio and banished, along with his daughter Miranda, to an island inhabited by the curious figure of Caliban. A shipwreck brings Antonio to the island, along with his coconspirator Alonzo, King of Naples, and his son Ferdinand. Prospero, helped by his trusty sprite Ariel, takes revenge upon those who have stolen his throne, and returns, in power once more, to Milan.
One duke may substitute for another, and one place mirrors another. The play’s structure offers a series of equivalences and alternatives: king and duke, father and child; true and false dukes of Milan; between brothers, or loyal versus faithless servants. In 1667, John Dryden and William Davenant—a man who occasionally hinted that he was Shakespeare’s illegitimate son, and therefore another unlikely double—cut the play into The Tempest, or The Enchanted Island. England had just emerged from the Civil War, and a new king was on the throne, so Dryden and Davenant lightly revised the slippery politics of the original, to make it more securely royalist. They also added character doubles: a stepson for Prospero and a sister for Caliban, who in this version became a buffoonish, comic character. For two hundred years, The Enchanted Island was performed more often than the original.
And yet one character remains oddly stubborn and untranslatable, resistant to the play’s easy logic of replacements and substitutions. In the early 19th century, William Hazlitt argued that The Tempest’s protagonist was not Prospero but Caliban, the play’s true victim of exile and dispossession. Since the middle of the past century, critics and directors have increasingly agreed. In an influential study published in 1950, the French psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni used Prospero and Caliban’s relationship to explain the psychology of colonialism. Aimé Césaire’s 1969 play Une Tempête rewrote Shakespeare’s original as explicitly colonial: Prospero teaches Caliban his language in order to wipe away native culture, and Caliban seeks to deny his name and become X, like Malcolm X. This reading of the play still sees in it a scheme of doubles and paired characters, but instead of ending in smooth reconciliations this is a drama of tensions and political injustice. In 1956, the American sci-fi film Forbidden Planet transplanted the plot into space, with robots and rockets. In this movie, which was the product of a more psychoanalytic age, Caliban became a murky figure buried in—and occasionally escaping from—the recesses of Prospero’s Id.
Each new Tempest is the mirror of its age. “What’s past is prologue,” says the wicked Antonio in Shakespeare’s play, and all these previous new Tempests stand behind Margaret Atwood’s updating of the play as a novel, Hag-Seed. It is 2013, at a theater festival near Toronto. The artistic director, an aging radical called Felix who has a taste for schlocky Shakespeare productions—Pericles in spaceships, “Macbeth done with chainsaws”—is cheated out of his job by his scheming colleague Tony. Teaming up with the Heritage Minister, Sal O’Nally, Tony plans a series of musicals, including The Sound of Music and Cats. The usurped Felix moves to a run-down bunker outside town, where he talks to the ghost of his daughter Miranda and dreams how he might return to power.
So far, this is The Tempest retold in a minor, soap-operatic key, but then it gets interesting. Felix changes his name to “Mr. Duke” and takes a job teaching in the literacy program at a local prison, where he stages a production of The Tempest with prisoners as actors. He invites Tony to see the play, along with Sal O’Nally and Sal’s son Freddie. Once they are inside the prison he embroils them in a complicated plot of trickery and blackmail, all conducted within his production of The Tempest. The spirit Ariel is played by a hacker named 8Handz, who runs the closed-circuit cameras and supplies hallucinogenic drugs; the slick prince Ferdinand is played by a conman who did well on the outside selling fake life insurance to seniors.
Each new Tempest is the mirror of its age.
It is all so neat, this play within a play within a novel. As in Dryden and Davenant’s 17th-century rewriting, the whole is built upon a careful stack of doubles and equivalences. Each character in Shakespeare’s play exists twice in Atwood’s novel. In the novel, the character of Tony clearly suggests Antonio, Prospero’s usurping brother; and within the play inside the prison, the role of Antonio is also played by an Italian American inmate nicknamed SnakeEye. Miranda is both Felix’s ghostly daughter, and a young actress he brings into the prison named Anne-Marie. More abstractly, 8Handz/Ariel is doubled in the technologies of surveillance so central to the plot, while in the widest doubling of all, the island is both Felix’s bunker outside town and the prison where the revenge plot is carried out. Atwood’s novel, that is, doubles Shakespeare’s play, and each of its inhabitants.
And yet one character exists only within the play performed inside the prison, and not in the wider world of the novel: Caliban. He has no double outside the prison, no other stand-in, and in this he is unique among all the characters. Atwood’s exclusion of Caliban from the present day cruelly mirrors his dehumanization within Shakespeare’s play. Prospero describes Caliban as “a freckled whelp, hag-born—not honoured with / A human shape,” while another character complains that he is unwashed, with “a very ancient and fishlike smell.” In the play, these are characters, speaking hatefully, yet Atwood takes their abuse as literal description. In the summary of the play that she includes in an appendix, she describes Caliban as “ugly and brutish,” while Felix suggests that Caliban might be played by a paraplegic. “It’s in the text,” he insists. “He’s misshapen!” The play never confirms this, and there is of course a fine but crucial distinction between what a character in a fictional work says and what that fictional work intends. This is as true for Atwood as it is for Shakespeare. Yet when Felix comes to cast Caliban, he chooses a prisoner of a particular type: Leggs, a junkie and war veteran, doing time for violent assault. “Mixed background, Irish and black,” Felix summarizes in his casting notes on the actors: “Red hair, freckles, heavy build, works out a lot.” That which is in Shakespeare loose, contested, and metaphorical, here is made explicit, small, and single.
We might compare the songs and speeches given by Caliban and Leggs. As written by Shakespeare, Caliban gives the play’s most beautiful speech, the great plea of longing and loss that begins, “Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises.” He presents the play’s most radical political idea, in a riposte to Prospero—“I am all the subjects that you have, / Which first was mine own king.” He offers its most anguished cry: “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother.” Atwood gives her Caliban, in the figure of Leggs, a different kind of song: a loose, juke-box rap of animal subjugation. “My name’s Caliban, got scales and long nails, / I smell like a fish and not like a man … I’m Hag-Seed,” he sings in the prison production, embracing his lowly status.
At best, Atwood’s novel brilliantly corresponds to the play’s own absences, its blank spaces. At worst, however, it overlooks the tangled ambiguities that give the original its dark force. Atwood’s version reinstates precisely the troubling political hierarchies that the play exposed and postcolonial critics and directors have found so productive. The result is a novel more conservative than it needed to be. Atwood describes the role of Caliban, ultimately performed by Leggs, as “earthy, potentially violent,” while Ariel, the elegant spirit, is played by a man named 8Handz. Legs versus hands; earth versus air; body versus spirit: these are the simplistic binaries around which pre-20th-century critics understood the play.
The Tempest issues a poisoned invitation. Take me, it says, and read me in simple terms: wrong and right, black and white, animal and human. Many in the play’s long history have done exactly that. Atwood has fallen into the allegorical mode that has led so many to sentimentalize the play, to find in it Shakespeare bidding farewell to the theater, or a study of the triumph of art. But such sentimentality is also a distraction from the play’s insistence upon giving voice to those subject to unfair power.
And yet: Margaret Atwood has named her novel after a term Prospero uses to abuse Caliban and that Caliban himself adopts. And her best novels have skillfully unpacked the manufacture of social injustice through fairy tales and myths. Most famously, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) borrows from the Bible and the Brothers Grimm to tell a story about patriarchy and the imbalance of power; The Penelopiad (2005) retells the Odyssey from the viewpoint of Penelope, left at home, and the 12 maids Odysseus murders in a fit of rage. Complaining that Margaret Atwood is insufficiently attuned to the politics of storytelling is as absurd as accusing Shakespeare of the same failing. Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) opens with a character called Snowman—or No Man—waking in a blasted, post-apocalyptic world, and trying to make sense of who he is. “He has the feeling he’s quoting from a book, some obsolete, ponderous directive written in aid of European colonials running plantations of one kind or another,” she writes. Snowman is another Caliban, dirty and uncertain, dispossessed and fearful of the thunder. The old obsolete book of Shakespeare’s play stands behind this, as behind so much else: giving its instructions, overheard, and so often misunderstood.