The Next Chapter

Margaret Atwood reimagines Shakespeare in her new novel, Hag-Seed

Margaret Atwood's latest book riffs on The Tempest, telling the story of a theatre director reimagining the classic in a men's prison.
Margaret Atwood's latest book features a vengeful artistic director seeking to stage a cutting-edge version of The Tempest. (Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Getty Images)

Margaret Atwood's newest novel, Hag-Seed, features a theatrical director who is so obsessed with his production of The Tempest that he fails to see his second-in-command has deftly engineered a behind-the-scenes plan to have him fired. It's a hostile takeover that the obsessed director never saw coming. He is terminated and from there he starts to plot an epic revenge scenario that sees him mounting an ambitious version of The Tempest in a men's prison.

The book is the most recent instalment of The Hogarth Shakespeare Project, which features a series of Shakespeare-inspired novels. Margaret Atwood spoke with Shelagh Rogers about the lasting appeal of the play. 

A play about a play within a novel

The Tempest is the closest that Shakespeare gets to writing a play about putting on a play. Essentially, the whole tempest is a play being staged by Prospero, who is the behind-the-scenes string-puller, with the help of his special effects guy, who is Ariel. He's manipulating all the other characters in the play to get them in position so things can turn out the way he wants them to. 

This retelling of The Tempest is a play about a play within a novel. It's a triple box...

Once you start reading Shakespeare, and rereading Shakespeare, and watching film versions, you see that everybody does it a different way. And each of those different ways is justified by the text. Shakespeare is pretty devious. You don't just ever have one simple meaning in a play by Shakespeare.

Connections with the Stratford Festival

Hag-Seed opens with Felix, the artistic director of the Makeshewig Festival — an event which bears an odd resemblance to the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, but of course it's not exactly the same thing. At the Makeshewig Festival, Felix is known for his cutting-edge, over-the-top production.

Felix's last name is Philips, which is my little tribute to Robin Philips of sainthood memory, who just died recently and, of course, was a renowned artistic director himself at the Stratford Festival.

Margaret Atwood's comments have been edited and condensed.