Does our mind a prison make? Hag-Seed a review

methode-times-prod-web-bin-6f349c82-8561-11e6-9270-cf26736cb244

 

About a year ago Hogarth Publishing reached out to a group of authors for what seemed like an impossible task; take a Shakespeare play and redo it for a modern audience. Eight authors took up the challenge: Tracy Chevalier; Margaret Atwood; Howard Jacobs; Anne Tyler; Jeanette Winterson; Edward St Aubyn; Gillain Flynn, and Joe Nesbo. You can read about it here http://hogarthshakespeare.com/

Although the lineup is impressive the news was met by a lot of criticism by authors, scholars, and the public alike. Why attempt to update the master when it is clear that his works still hold up? There were many an online discussions about the subject, and blog posts blasting the idea of modernizing Shakespeare. I had to laugh at the hypocrisy of one author who took a dim view to the Hogarth’s undertaking while making sure to let his readers knew he would be retelling Hamlet from Marcellus’ point of view.

The publishing house did not do its self any favors by the lack of explanation of how the authors were going to go about it. Many understood it to mean that these eight authors thought themselves worthy of changing words and scenes. The outcry over the “retooling” went on a little to long before it was announced in subsequent interviews that the author were simply taking the plots and retelling them as modern works literature.

Yet the unease that many felt was not allayed when the first go, Winterson’s book, The Gap of Time based on The Winter’s Tale, did not do well with mature book readers and critics alike. I picked it up while at the library one day and found that it read like a sappy young-adult novel, complete with short sentences and a heroine that sounded like a Disney Princess. I had to agree with the critics of the endeavor; if this was to be the norm then this was not going to turn out well. At least that was my opinion at the time. Oh but soon, I would learn just how wrong I was at least when it comes to Atwood’s book, Hag-Seed based on the Tempest.

Now, I have to be honest. I am no fan of Atwood. I read her book The Handmaiden’s Tale years ago and found it mildly disturbing. But I understand that she is a popular author so when the favorable reviews for Hag-Seed started popping up I simply chalked it up to her popularity with the masses. But once again Twitter prompted me to do a double take. Readers from all over started posting about how good it was. And so, one rainy day I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

One of my favorite things about the Amazon Kindle app is the ability to download a free book sample. So on this rainy day, I downloaded the sample and started reading. And to my amazement, I couldn’t put it down. Oh I had to read this book! The first two pages pull you in and demand your complete attention. Felix, the Prospero of this book had placed a spell on me, but not enough for me to purchase the Kindle edition. $13.00 for the opportunity to read a book that cannot be placed in a shelf of honor or passed to a close friend? Never!

I refuse to pay over $9.00 for a Kindle book (and even that hurts) so I searched my local library for a copy. The one and only copy was checked out but due back in a few days so I reserved it, and picked it up the following Friday. By Sunday morning I had finished the book.

From the publisher:

Felix is at the top of his game as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have amazed and confounded. Now he’s staging a Tempest like no other: not only will it boost his reputation, it will heal emotional wounds.

Or that was the plan. Instead, after an act of unforeseen treachery, Felix is living in exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his beloved lost daughter, Miranda. And also brewing revenge.

After twelve years, revenge finally arrives in the shape of a theatre course at a nearby prison. Here, Felix and his inmate actors will put on his Tempest and snare the traitors who destroyed him. It’s magic! But will it remake Felix as his enemies fall?

This re-imaging of The Tempest has everything a good novel should. An unforgettable character in Felix, a haunting character in Miranda, Felix’s long dead daughter that he cannot let go of, and some light comic relief peppered throughout the story in the guise of the inmates. But the most remarkable thing about this book is Atwood’s keen insight into The Tempest and what it can mean to a modern audience.

Atwood gives us a sympathetic character in Felix. He is man who cannot let of his past, and it becomes his prison. He lost his three year old daughter Miranda to a fever because he was too self-absorbed to notice her illness. He allows Miranda to haunt him. He imagines she is still with him, and over the years he sees her as she would be had she lived. They talk and play Chess. Being a mere wisp of a ghost she cannot leave the house Felix lives in, so she too is imprisoned.

Felix spends his days in a local correctional center producing Shakespeare plays staring the inmates. It is here that Felix hatches a plan for revenge on those who were instrumental to his downfall. And this thirst for revenge is yet another prison as Felix cannot move forward or move from his lowly station. Yet it is the inmates and an unwitting subject caught in Felix’s revenge that finally help him break free.

For those who love to study and even teach Shakespeare, the scenes in which Felix and the inmates discuss the play make the book worth reading. He encourages them to find all of the prisons within the play and they have a serious discussion about what constitutes a prison. Is it a place? Yes. A state of mind? Most certainly. But most importantly to the inmates and to the original play, it is usually circumstances beyond our control.

Arial and Caliban have always lived on the island, but it is not until Prospero shows up do they both find themselves trapped. The inmates identify with these two characters as they see society in the character of Prospero. One inmate noted that Prospero shouldn’t have been surprised when Caliban turned on him and tried to rape Miranda. Prospero made him feel as if he belonged and then “turned natural” when it came to wanting Miranda. “She was the only woman there. What else was he supposed to do”?

Felix does not allow his incarcerated actors to swear so he devises a plan that allows them to pick out Shakespearean insults and fling them at will. Flesh-eater, and a pox o’ your throat, you bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog (or several versions of this phrase) are favored by the inmates.

It is in the middle of the book that the inmates take center stage as they work though the play and its message. And it is here that the book really has its heart. It’s just too bad Atwood did not take more time to develop these characters. I felt she used them and then tossed them aside, much like prison inmates feel used by society. Maybe that was her intention, but I felt she could have given us one or two stand-out characters that we could grapple with and debate over just as we debate over Caliban and his role in The Tempest.

This sub-plot of the inmate’s education makes up for the larger plot of revenge. When we get to the revenge scenes we find that Atwood, always imaginative, stretches the bounds of credibility. But in this she is forgiven because the book ends on such a heartfelt note.

It cannot be easy to take on Shakespeare. To look at one of his plays and think, “hum..how can I modernize this, how can I make it appealing to a larger audience?”

Thankfully Atwood does not take us scene by scene or even try to recreate the absurdity of the shipwrecked fools. Doing so would have cheapened her book. The setting is no place for fools; prison life is subject to too many harsh realities and dangers. But this is also what makes this endeavor a little dangerous. By eliminating characters and scenes (and adding a few of her own to the play-within the book) there is the danger that readers may think they’ve read The Tempest, or at least a stand-in for the play, when in fact they’ve hardly scratched the surface. No, Atwood’s book is a nod to Shakespeare, and nothing else.

This is a fine book, and I do recommend it. However, I am not sure Atwood has met Hogarth’s original intent, if their intent was to modernize his plays. But then, their intent is a still a little ambiguous. The one line from the About section their website reads: The Hogarth Shakespeare project sees Shakespeare’s works retold by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today. I am still unsure of what this means. You will just have to read the book for yourself and decide if this book is up to the unnecessary task of retelling Shakespeare’s story. Yes, I think the task is unnecessary, but if it produces books like Hag-Seed, I think the endeavor is at least worthy of consideration.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret Hag-Seed Random House. October 11, 2016. Print Edition

Hogarth Shakespeare Online http://hogarthshakespeare.com/

Next up, I thought we would start talking about Shakespeare’s work, in the original. We are going to go thru the plays alphabetically one by one, finding one or two points for consideration and how they relate to our modern era. First up All’s Well that Ends Well and the study of obsession.  Stay tuned!

Happy Towel Day & Thanks For All The Fish

The original UK cover
The original UK cover

Happy Towel Day! Here’s a look at my annual Towel Day post.

Towel Day is an annual celebration on the 25th of May, as a tribute to the late author Douglas Adams (1952-2001). On that day, fans around the universe proudly carry a towel in his honor. As part of the celebration, I offer you a few things you may not know about The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

douglasadams

Who is Douglas Adams?

Douglas Adams was born on the 11th of March 1952 in Cambridge. He was an English writer and dramatist. While Adams was studying in Cambridge he hitchhiked from Europe to Istanbul, working various jobs to generate funds for it. After leaving school he tried his hand at comedic writing. Adams was “discovered” by Graham Chapman. They became friends, which led to Adams making a few brief appearances in the series ‘Monty Pythons Flying Circus’. But Adams writing style was not fit for the style of radio or television of that time which proved to be a hindrance in his success and led to bouts of low self-esteem and procrastination. Adams was never comfortable with fame and it took years for him to finish each book. In fact the first book ends abruptly due to the simple fact that because Adams was taking so long to adapt the radio series into book form the publishers called him asking that he simply finish the page he was writing.

The conception

The first episode aired on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday, March 8, 1978, at 10:30 pm.

The Hitchhikers Guide was original a radio series idea. The initial idea for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came to Douglas Adams while lying drunk in a field holding a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe, staring up at the night sky. The original concept was called The Ends of the Earth. The idea was that at the end of each show, the Earth would be destroyed in a new and interesting way. As Adams wrote he realized he needed a guide, one who could explain the various cultures that bring about the ends of the earth, so the character of Ford Prefect was born. Prefect was not the main character, that would be Arthur Dent, but he role was central to the stories. Adams needed a strong central figure because he did not outline his stories. Adams admitted he “made things up as he went along”, which is why so there are so many plot twists and turns. Adams had no idea what would happen next or where the stories were headed. Most of his most well known characters and plot devises stem from his “just winging it” writing style.

images

The Cosmic Cutie

If you live in America and are a fan of the series, this symbol is very familiar. It’s known as the Cosmic Cutie. But did you know Adams hated it? He asked to have it removed from the book jackets but the publishers refused. Why? Because Adams took so long between books it was designed by the publishers to visually connect the books. They were afraid readers wouldn’t know they were part of the same series.

Marvin__the_paranoid_android_by_Argial

Marvin the Paranoid Android

“I’d make a suggestion, but you wouldn’t listen. No one ever does.”

Marvin is a severely depressed robot. He’s so depressed that, when he gets bored and talks to other computers, they commit suicide. His depression is due to the “Genuine People Personality” he received while he was being manufactured. Originally Marvin was to be used in only one episode as comic relief, but proved to be very popular and so became a recurring character.

Babble Fish

Adams realized early on he had painted himself in a corner. How was Arthur to understand the man aliens he encountered? Having Prefect translate would use up limited air time so Adams had to come up with way to save time. According to the first book, The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier, but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with”.

Infinite Improbability

Making stuff up as he went along created problems for Adams. How do you get your characters out of tight situations? Infinite Improbability, the most favorite of all the technology in the series, was created to get Adams out of a corner he’d written himself into. Adams came up with the idea after writing an episode that ended with Ford and Arthur being shot in open space without spacesuits; Adams no idea how to save them. It was absurdly improbable that any spaceship would come along and rescue them in time, so Adams created the Infinite Improbability Drive to make it plausible. This allowed Adams to create a universe in which anything could and usually did happen.

Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything- 42.

“The Answer to the Great Question… Of Life, the Universe and Everything… Is… Forty-two,’ said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.”

Books have been written about Adams answer to life’s most pressing question. Scholars, mathematicians and philosophers have all weighed in on what Adams meant by the number 42. It is ironic that humans are so obsessed with this question that many see value in Adams nonsensical answer. To him the answer is obvious; life is random and meaningless. When asked about his answer, Adams said: “The answer to this is very simple,” “It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one.

The Towel

When traveling great distances it is always a good idea to pack smartly. Of all the things you must have, which is the most useful? For Adams it starts with a towel.

According to the guide, “a towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.”

Quotes

“Would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?”

“He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”

“For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.”

“So long, and thanks for all the fish”.