Hollywood English Class: On Margaret Atwood’s ‘Hag-Seed’

The teacher sits on the edge of his desk, slouching jauntily, maybe with one foot perched on a chair. He’s wearing khakis and a tweed jacket. His tawny hair sweeps back from his forehead. He is One of Us but also so, so much wiser. “Today,” he announces, “we’re starting a unit on Shakespeare.” The class groans. “Hear me out,” Teacher Dude says. “Shakespeare was a man of the people,” he says. “He’s writing for and about young people just like you.” Think Daryl Mitchell’s Mr. Morgan rapping Sonnet 141 to Julia Stiles’s delight in 10 Things I Hate About You. Michael Vartan in Never Been Kissed, drawing parallels between Rosalind in As You Like It and Drew Barrymore’s Josie. Look no further than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s substitute teacher sketch in a recent Saturday Night Live to see the cliché get called out for what it is. The students in this stereotypical story, of course, will be writing or acting out some scenes from the chosen play, and, inevitably, our young protagonists will learn something about themselves over the course of the assignment. If this ubiquitous Hollywood English-class scene teaches us anything, it may be an illustration of just how much the plays of Shakespeare -- not to mention talking about Shakespeare, making comparisons to Shakespeare, re-examining Shakespeare in another light -- has become so ingrained in our folklore. The Bard appears so often in either the foreground or background of our narratives that we hardly notice anymore. Part of that storied tradition, the Hogarth Shakespeare Project pairs eight well-known authors with one of the plays. The latest entry, Margaret Atwood’s fun, quirky Tempest adaptation, Hag-Seed, toys with this foregrounding and backgrounding, as well as taking on the literal, figurative, critical, and sociological aspects of the story. Rather than The Tempest Retold it might be more aptly subtitled The Tempest: Engaged. Set in present-day Ontario, Hag-Seed takes some key motifs from the play -- theatre as magic, the island as a prison -- and literalizes them, even while acknowledging and pondering the metaphors. Our protagonist, Felix Phillips, is a theatre director known for his avant-garde takes on Shakespearean classics. Soon after the sudden death of his four-year-old daughter, Miranda, Felix sets out to mount a fantastical version of The Tempest starring himself as Prospero, robed in a cloak made from stuffed animals and wielding a fox-headed walking stick as his wizard’s staff. But before the show opens he is unceremoniously fired by his erstwhile business partner, Tony. Felix exists in self-imposed exile until he gets a new job, teaching English at a local prison. Going by the pseudonym “Mr. Duke,” he directs the inmates in a different play each spring, teaching them skills like costume design and video editing as well as improving their often woeful literacy rates. When Felix gets word that Tony and a politician, Sal O’Nally, are coming to the prison to see his latest play, he seizes the chance to stage his long-lost production as well as get revenge for his ousting. Tony and Sal will become prisoners of Felix’s enchantments, even while the inmate-cast is performing the very same story on the prison’s closed-circuit TVs. From the beginning, the parallels to the original are obvious and noted. Felix, in his role as Artistic Director, is “the cloud-riding enchanter.” Tony is undoubtedly the villainous Antonio who usurps Prospero’s throne and sends him away in a leaky boat. That Felix’s daughter was named Miranda is entirely conscious: “What else would he have named a motherless baby girl with a middle-aged doting father?” The first book in the Hogarth series, Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, has a quality of predestination about it. The characters have to follow a path laid out for them hundreds of years ago. Atwood hangs a lampshade on this idea in Hag-Seed. Felix leans into his role as Prospero, literally and figuratively. He lets slip that he’s in on the joke...and barrels ahead with his plot-reenactment anyway. As Mr. Duke, Felix pitches the plays to his students as stories they can relate to: betrayal, murder, revenge, and comeuppance. He sells The Tempest along those lines, and Atwood follows the same tack, focusing on the character of Prospero and his revenge plot rather than on the story’s fantastical elements. But revenge hardly makes The Tempest unique in the Shakespeare canon. As a reader, I found myself hoping for more of the spirits and magicians and mysterious islands. Perhaps Atwood dismissed such approaches as too obvious. Instead, we get the sociological angle of teaching Shakespeare in prison, in the context of a play about prisoners. As a metafictional conceit, it’s clever. As a real-world endeavor, it’s admirable. But as drama, it fails to completely connect. Perhaps it’s because none of the numerous characters get as much attention as Felix, and thus are largely reduced to their one or two recognizable characteristics. We don’t get to know them as people. At one point, Tony actually utters the uber-villain line, “You’ll pay for this!” The title Hag-Seed comes from Felix’s class rule that the students can only swear if they use a word or phrase from the play itself. This results in chapters of playful dialogue full of “poxy” this and “whoreson” that. Perhaps a fun idea in a real-life Shakespeare class, here it comes off a bit gimmicky. "Hag-Seed," the term itself, refers to Caliban, the lone native inhabitant of the island, Prospero’s slave. He is the character the inmates relate to most, but for a book named after him, he is left oddly obscured. Neither the idea of Caliban, with all its ripe postcolonial and racial implications, nor the character himself have much impact on Atwood’s story. The book is fun and readable. There are some delicious turns of phrase -- “He would push every envelope, he would twist reality until it twangled” -- but it doesn’t necessarily draw new conclusions about its source material. Rather it suggests angles you might not have considered since freshman-year World Lit. Did you know The Tempest used to be performed as an opera? How many different prisons can you find in the text? At times the book feels more like a thought experiment than an immersive novel. Thanks to its taking place in an actual English class, Hag-Seed becomes the latest entry in that parade of pop-culture English classes with surprisingly literal correlations between the characters’ lives and their reading material. The difference here is that the character whose story most closely aligns with the play is the teacher himself. Felix achieves what he set out to do and learns something about himself along the way. By the time he’s ended his revels, he is free from the thing that was holding him prisoner.

The Chorus of Literature: On Geraldine Brooks’s ‘The Secret Chord’

I imagine one of the reasons The Great Gatsby remains so popular today must be because it taps into something deep inside the human literary soul. A man rises from obscurity, wins all the battles (throws all the parties), and ultimately falls in a tragedy of his own making. How long has that essential plot been with us? The answer, as anyone who’s taken a world history course could tell you, is a very, very long time. Even today, several hundred years after the divinely appointed monarch became an anachronism in the West, we can’t stop telling stories about that great man, the king. In The Secret Chord, Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks (March, 2006) goes way, way back into that tradition to bring us a novelistic retelling of the biblical King David, the man who killed giants, composed the Psalms and united the tribes of Israel into a kingdom. Brooks’s David is a man of contradictions. “He could be a predator at noonday and a poet by dusk,” says Natan, Brooks’s narrator. He’s extraordinarily touched by the divine and a great hero to his people, but he commits many acts of brutality and benefits from even more to achieve his crown. Though his life (if he truly existed, it was maybe 3,000 years ago) was chronicled in a 2,500-year-old book, in Brooks’s hands David feels both timeless and fully alive, as charismatic and dangerous as any of our modern Chosen Ones. She presents a hero who “dwelt in the searing glance of the divine, but who sweated and stank…built a nation, made music that pleased heaven, and left poems in our mouths that will be spoken by people yet unknown.” Who doesn’t want to read about someone like that? Brooks’s fifth novel takes its title from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and revolves around the famous tryst described in that song. David sees Batsheva (the names are spelled from their Hebrew originals) bathing on the roof and, overthrown by her beauty in the moonlight, commits adultery and a murder that bring about the near downfall of his dynasty. Woven around this thread is David’s whole life story, as recounted by his lifelong prophet, Natan. The story doesn’t stray from its source material in the books of Samuel and Kings in any significant way. As a young man, David is pulled away from tending his sheep so he can be anointed the new king of the Israelites by the prophet Samuel. He slays Goliath, joins the court of King Saul, and loves Jonathan, Saul’s son. As king, he marries many women, fathers many sons, wins many battles. In punishment for the Batsheva affair, David’s horrid sons turn against him and each other, spurring several years of family and dynastic strife. In Brooks’s previous novels, she has taken a very specific moment in history and turned it outward to examine a host of concerns. Here the scope seems both larger and more personal. The details of daily life in Iron Age Israel, outside of war and food, are sparse, as they have to be. There are few primary sources to consult when you go back this far. But the characters never feel foreign or unknowable. The story takes David’s faith and Natan’s prophecies at face value, but it never feels overly pious. Natan’s express mission is to make his king known to readers “as a man.” There are times when Brooks’s decision to relate the entire story of a very eventful life in 300 pages feels like a series of missed opportunities. Natan recounts events from a distance -- some scenes are related by other characters in dialogue, some are seen from afar in visions and others are recalled years after they happened. We get moments in summary that cry out to be part of a living, breathing scene. Take this line: “I was at the audience, and I sensed his manipulation, but I did not grasp where it was leading.” A different novel might spend pages leading up to this kind of realization; The Remains of the Day makes an entire book out of it. Later, distraught by David’s hand in Uriah’s death, Natan takes to the desert. While wandering there, he has visions of how the remaining years of David’s life will play out. For all this, arguably the most key passage in the book, we get two pages. Natan is a prophet, a true seer. As such, he takes a vow of celibacy and lives apart from other people. “The truth is, the people abide my kind, but no one loves us,” he realizes at age 10, after his first vision. “We grow used to the turned shoulder, the retreating back, the bright conversation that sputters to a murmur when we enter a room, the sigh of relief when we leave it.” And so what other way, he might ask us, would a man such as him tell a story such as this? The form suits the storyteller. Still, at times I couldn’t help but wish for the “simple joys and intimacies” Natan holds himself apart from. In their place, we gain a breadth of knowledge that lets us see how everything is connected. We understand how being unloved as a child makes David too permissive with his own children; how after being so blessed during his rise to power, he can callously abuse that power later in life. It’s rewarding, to feel like we know this man as well as Natan does. The book holds both coming-of-age tale and classic tragedy. Fans of Brooks’s previous books may be surprised by how overwhelmingly male The Secret Chord is. All of her previous novels have central female characters. The Secret Chord stays firmly focused on David, Natan, and, later, Shlomo (Solomon). This is not to say an author must always write the same kind of book or isn’t free to choose her subjects. Several women do appear throughout the story, most notably David’s famous wives Mikhal, Avigail, and Batsheva, and all live and breathe as characters in their own right. But for the large majority of the book, we’re in a men’s world of war, chieftainship, and brutality. Brooks’s past books are mostly about ordinary people who push against the circumstances of their time to make their lives extraordinary. The characters in The Secret Chord are extraordinary from day one and spend the rest of their lives struggling to maintain the great responsibility that comes with it. But Brooks treats these characters with the same good will and strong narrative she did with the others. David can be quite harsh and misguided, yet enthralling and charming for all that. Natan’s outsider status may place him in kinship with the women of Brooks’s other novels, and he draws our sympathy with his clear-eyed confessions. Is it escapism to read about such a powerful figure when most of us lead lives of quiet inconsequentiality? Or is reading this book a way to hear that ancient chord in the chorus of literature, linking us to humanity throughout the ages?