Hogarth Shakespeare project is a series of 8 books written by contemporary writers, each book being inspired by a story by Shakespeare. The project marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, in 2016. I was very excited about these books when I first heard about the project, and now I got to read one of them – “Hag-Seed” by Margaret Atwood.

With this occasion I found out that Hag-Seed means the offspring of a witch.

Scary book cover, isn’t it?

Hag-Seed in a nutshell

To begin with, “Hag-Seed” is a retelling of “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare. In this context, the book tells the story of Felix (or Mr. Duke), former theatre director, isolated from society through a series of unfortunate events. He is now teaching literature in an unusual setting – at a prison, using an unusual method – through performing Shakespeare’s plays.

I think there are two overarching perspectives offered by “Hag-Seed”. The first one is related to the story itself – a story of loss and revenge, closure and renewal. The second one is related to Shakespeare and theatre – the educational and healing (catharsis) aspects that are on top of the entertaining purpose.

Overall impression

I enjoyed a lot reading the novel! It is an easy read, you won’t even feel when the 300 pages come to an end. However, the story brings multiple aspects to the table.

Having no idea what “The Tempest” is about, reading “Hag-Seed” was also a journey of discovering Shakespeare’s play. There is also the thought-provoking idea that literature (and Shakespeare, in particular) can be an educational tool of prisoners.

The other topics you’ll discover by yourself when you read the book, as it is a must read for sure!

Illustration from ft.com

Learning about Shakespeare’s play

Atwood incorporated “The Tempest” on two different layers, which was brilliant! On one hand we have the prisoners who learn about “The Tempest”, on the other hand we have the life of Felix that can be (somewhat) mapped to the life of a character from “The Tempest”.

I loved this twofold manner of integrating Shakespeare’s play into the story, as it gives the reader a more ample understanding. After reading “Hag-Seed” I think I have an understanding of what “The Tempest” is about, so I would feel comfortable to take the next step and watch the play performed, for instance.

“The Tempest” performed at The Globe (Youtube/Shakespeare’s Globe)

Inspired by reality

You know what is fascinating? That the idea of teaching Shakespeare in prisons is actually inspired from reality!

Laura Bates, an English professor at Indiana State University, teaches Shakespeare to maximum-security prisoners for more than 25 years. She created the world’s first Shakespeare program for super-maximum security prisons.

If you want to find out more about “Shakespeare in Shackles”, I have 2 recommendation:

Bates wrote a book about her experiences – “Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard”, published in 2013.

Laura Bates sits among eight prisoners in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), four on each side of the hallway, each prisoner locked into a separate cell. Shakespearean discussions take place with prisoners speaking through the opened slots in their doors. Photo by Jon Mac Media (2019)” (JKP.com)

Wrap-up

To conclude, I would recommend reading “Hag-Seed” to anyone interested in Shakespeare or looking for intriguing stories! It is a simple story from the narrative point of view, where complexity stems from the themes brought into discussion.

Have you read any books from the Hogarth Shakespeare series? If yes, which one(s) would you recommend?

‘Till next time … happy reading!

Georgiana


Cover picture from Read It Forward

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