87 pages 2 hours read

Margaret Atwood

Hag-Seed: William Shakespeare's The Tempest Retold

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


Hag-Seed: William Shakespeare’s The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood is a reimagining of William Shakespeare’s classic play The Tempest. Published in 2016, Hag-Seed was commissioned by Random House for their Hogarth Shakespeare series, a series of novels that adapt Shakespeare’s classics into contemporary fiction. Margaret Atwood is a celebrated Canadian author whose novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a modern classic of dystopian and feminist literature. Among her many accolades, Atwood is a two-time winner of the Booker Prize and a recipient of the National Book Critics Award.

Plot Summary

Felix Phillips is a well-known artistic director of a Shakespearean festival. His adaptations are eccentric, sometimes bordering on offensive. When Felix loses his wife and then, three years later, his daughter, his obsession with his job overtakes his mental health. What’s more, his adaptations become even weirder, prompting his firing from the theater group. A former friend and colleague, Tony, takes over his job to great success. Felix couples his grief with vengeful thoughts about Tony.

Felix changes his name to Felix Duke, buys a shack of a house, and disappears into his unhappiness for many years. His solitariness and anger make him see things, such as his daughter Miranda. He believes that she is still alive, though he is often aware that he is making this up. As the years go by, he is unable to let go of his last adaptation, Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He obsesses over the play, his daughter, and Tony.

Felix decides to get a job so he can get out of the house and distract himself from the specter of Miranda. He finds employment as a teacher for the nearby correctional institution. For years, Felix teaches and directs prisoners in Shakespeare performances. The job nurtures Felix’s bruised ego, but he continues to obsess over what he can do to take revenge on Tony.

Four years into his work at the Fletcher Correctional Institution, Felix discovers that Sal, a justice minister, and Tony, now a minister himself, plan to visit the prison to watch a filmed screening of Felix’s next play. Felix decides to produce The Tempest. He hires Anne-Marie, the actress who would have played Miranda 12 years before in Felix’s original adaptation, to play Miranda. He casts himself as Prospero. Felix spends eager days casting the show, discussing its themes, and planning his revenge on Sal and Tony.

As Felix and the Fletcher Players rehearse and prepare for their filmed performance, Felix struggles with whether to keep or let go of the voice and image of his daughter Miranda. He convinces one of the prisoners to rig Tony’s screening room with cameras and microphones and plans an improvised performance for Tony and Sal as part of his revenge plan. To build up his confidence in this revenge plan, Felix puts on the Prospero costume from his long-ago failed adaptation at the Shakespeare festival.

The day finally arrives. As the rest of the prison watches the video of the Fletcher Players, the special guests are given refreshments in a private room. The guests (Tony, Sal, Lonnie, Sal’s son Freddie, and Sebert) unknowingly consume drinks laced with drugs. The Players create an illusion of lights and sound that makes the guests believe that there is a prison riot. Freddie is brought into a single cell, where Anne-Marie visits him dressed as Miranda and tells him he’s been cast as Ferdinand. She keeps him distracted in that cell by seducing him through the words of the play. The other four guests are brought into a bunk cell, where Sal and Lonnie pass out from the drugs. A prisoner named 8Handz helps Felix secretly record Tony encouraging Sebert to kill Sal and Lonnie to further Sebert’s political ambitions. Sal and Lonnie are woken up by blaring music. All four men are brought to a green room, where they eat grapes injected with more drugs. 8Handz and Felix secretly tape them as they experience drug-induced hallucinations.

Finally, after securing this blackmail material, Felix reveals himself. He gives Tony his demands: reinstatement as artistic director, Tony’s withdrawal from politics, funding for the prison literacy program, and early parole for 8Handz. The men have no choice but to agree. Though Felix is successful in his revenge plan, he drives home forlorn and unsatisfied.

At the cast after-party, each actor presents their post-show analysis of their character and their character’s hypothetical epilogue. The prisoners spin new futures for the characters that capture The Tempest’s themes of redemption and morality. Felix prepares to go on a cruise with 8Handz, who has received his early parole. When he returns, he will go back to working at the Shakespeare festival. He finally decides to set his daughter Miranda free.