By Margaret Atwood
Reading this novel the same week that we lost Leonard Cohen, I kept hearing his Anthem with that important point of wisdom: There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.
I found light in Margaret Atwood's retelling of The Tempest. Her latest novel, Hag-Seed, is part of the Hogarth series retelling Shakespeare. To be able to convey a long-held desire for revenge, competing desires and motives and, at the height of it all, forgiveness and letting go, both Shakespeare and Atwood are writing about larger-than-life characters who can serve as grand tools of catharsis.
Atwood's Prospero is Felix Phillips, artistic director of a theatrical troupe that has made a small town an artistic hub. He married late; his wife did not survive long past childbirth. His beloved daughter, named Miranda, died when she was three; her fever grew worse while Felix was at the theater. His productions grow ever more avant garde. His upcoming production of The Tempest will be all over the map and of questionable taste, including a magician's cloak of animal pelts. But that's what art is all about, right?
Not to The Powers that Be. Especially when Felix's number two, Tony, has him escorted out before a single performance of the play where his Miranda can be the child who never died, but who grew up on the island and fell in love with a noble lad, spared from Caliban.
That was 12 years ago. In the interim, Felix found a little shack in the country, an island, if you will, where he pretends Miranda never died but is an Ariel-like sprite who no one sees but him.
What he wants above all else, even revenge, is the chance to stage The Tempest. To bring his play to life, for his daughter, for Miranda.
He unexpectedly gets that opportunity a few years after he takes on a part-time teaching job in a prison. He teaches Shakespeare and writing by staging plays, with the inmates acting, doing the stage work and writing about their characters. Felix takes the job under a stage name, Mr. Duke, even though the university professor who arranged his hiring knows who he is, and was.
Mr. Duke is a hit with the inmates. After the obvious plays for the men -- Julius Caesar, Richard III, that Scottish play -- and tracking the movements of his enemies, Felix is ready. It's time to stage The Tempest. For his enemies, for himself, for Miranda.
There is a grand caper-like quality to putting on this production. Will Felix and the men pull it off? He even has a real woman to play Miranda -- the very young actress he hired years ago for the production that didn't happen is taking part as a poised young woman. But between the caper aspects of the story, Atwood keeps the emotional aspect of the novel going as well. At one point Felix "has a split instant of seeing Prospero through the gaze of Miranda -- a petrified Miranda who's suddenly realized that her adored father is a full-blown maniac, and paranoid into the bargain." What will that moment of realization about the character and about himself do to Felix and what will happen?
Should we be rooting for him? Does it depend on who Prospero is? Atwood tackles this head-on with the men delving into the afterlives of their characters, with their raps to make the play more vibrant and real for them, with their questioning of Felix to make him justify his actions and interpretations.
His voice sounds fraudulent. Where is the authentic pitch, the true note? Why did he ever think he could play this impossible part? So many contradictions to Prospero! Entitled aristocrat, modest hermit? Wise old mage, revengeful old poop? Irritable and unreasonable, kindly and caring? Sadistic, forgiving? Too suspicious, too trusting? ... They cheated for centuries when presenting this play. They cut speeches, they edited sentences, trying to confine Prospero within their calculated perimeters. Trying to make him one thing or the other. Trying to make him fit.
Which is what we do not only through art and the way we view art.
In taking the play and the characters apart after their own production, the men come up with fascinating ideas that can provide even more catharsis than the play as they call out Prospero and give Ariel and Caliban their due. (It looks like Atwood had fun creating raps with biting lyrics the men perform instead of the traditional songs.) And they recognize that it's all right to change one's mind about revenge, that it's all right to change one's mind and forgive. It's a chance that is not given or taken lightly by the characters:
Is extreme goodness always weak? Can a person be good only in the absence of power? The Tempest asks us these questions.
And the answer? Doesn't it depend on one's character regardless of power? Or was Lord Acton right? Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Prospero nearly fell victim to that hubris. But Ariel saved him. And they all were saved.
Because, as is also noted in the novel's chapters that deconstruct the play:
There is of course another kind of strength, which is the strength of goodness to resist evil; a strength that Shakespeare's audience would have understood well.
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