St Mary’s Church, Bathwick, is a beautiful building. Not, however, where one would expect to be directed if they were going to a book reading. Nestled in a corner of the Roman town, the church exudes the knowledge of its age: it is, after all, of medieval origins. This proved the perfect backdrop for a reading from multi-award winning author and essayist Margaret Atwood. Her name alone is enough to encourage an audience of 500+ into this little nook of Bath; over her 59 year career in the field she has inspired a devotional following of literature, eco-critical, feminist, and classical enthusiasts alike. Indeed, the audience’s awed silence at her entrance reflected this, only to be broken into laughter by Atwood’s dry humour and self-assured speech.
Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, Hag-seed, was commissioned as part of the Random House’s Hogarth Shakespeare Series, for which several authors were asked to reimagine Shakespeare plays into modern works of fiction. Other contributors include Tracy Chevalier, Jo Nesbo, Jeanette Winterson, and Gillian Flynn. Atwood’s version of The Tempest takes a directly allegorical approach to the original, although the brief stated that authors could be as direct or indirect as they pleased with their links to the plays. Her protagonist, representative of Prospero, is demoted from his directorial role in his local production of The Tempest, due to protestations that producers ‘draw the line at Caliban as a paraplegic, they say it’s way beyond bad taste’. He thus forced to take on a similar creative position in a nearby prison. Here, he reignites his attempts to direct the play. Atwood proclaimed a fascination with the play itself, especially regarding implications of plays within plays, and, when asked which play she would have picked had The Tempest not been possible, merely quoted French novelist Sidonie Gabrielle Colette: “if I can’t have too many truffles, I’ll do with no truffles at all”.
Rewriting Shakespeare is no mean feat, especially if taking Atwood’s allegorical approach. The hardest character to represent, Atwood claimed, was easily Miranda: how does one recreate a situation in which a young woman would have reached adulthood having had no contact with the outside world? Raising a child on a desolate island is not believable in a modern day context. Caliban presented her with yet more fictional qualms. Presented as a savage native in Prospero’s enslavement, the character has elicited a wealth of postcolonial, racial critique from scholars. However, Atwood remains critical: she says it is crucial to remember that Caliban not only attempted to rape Miranda, but felt no guilt, only regret and blithe irritation that he did not get to complete the act. Atwood has no doubt that, given the opportunity again, Caliban would take it without question. To see how she overcame these issues, of both narrative and opinion, one will have to read the novel.
Shakespearean characterisation seemed another interest of the multifaceted author. She has clearly studied his works at length, pointing out the infrequency of plays that do not contain a character’s name. This, she claims, means that these plays prioritise the characters as they stand in relation to situations, and indeed other characters, rather than forming the individual character studies for which The Bard is renowned. In accordance with this, she claims that she could not possibly pick a favourite or most important character from The Tempest. Once again, Atwood’s thoughts provide an interesting lens through which to view The Bard’s work, or indeed literature in general. She raises questions regarding what makes a character in the first place: is it their relation with others? Their response to their surroundings? Character, to Atwood, is therefore a collaborative construction.
Atwood debated all the topics an avid reader of her fiction would expect to encounter: ecocriticism, feminism, gender studies, and dystopia, yet she also elaborated upon further literary and cultural topics. A classical thinker, she addressed issues of staging early modern productions, and the problems of mythologizing ancient literature. Perhaps most unexpected, however, was the seventy-seven year old’s impressive explosion into rap, as she recited spoken word poetry from her novel. She took a comically resigned approach to this foray, her tone of voice acknowledging the incongruence between her age and her words. However, she nonetheless delivered with conviction, simultaneously amusing and impressing her audience.
Despite staunchly refusing to answer which of her novels was her favourite, Atwood was more than happy to address her previous works alongside Hag-Seed. As expected, audience members were curious as to her thoughts on eco-critical matters, questioning her on the links between this field and her feminist interests, her dystopian exploits, and her thoughts on the future of our planet. Although the topic of questioning was dictated by her avid audience, Atwood remained firmly in control of her words. Alongside refusing to ever pick a favourite of her works, she despaired at being constantly asked which of her characters she was most drawn to. She did, however, litter her protestations with gems of profundity. On her attraction to dystopia, she mused “any text about the future is actually about the present; all dystopias and utopias are social commentaries”. Indeed, any reader of The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake would be inspired to agree. This thought process has also influenced her eco-critical work, as she proclaimed a fascination with the human race’s current position in its geo-temporal environment. “We are at a tricky point in our species: are we to carry on, or are we to go the way of the mastodon?” Her thoughts, rather than prescribing modes of thought, instead provided interesting lenses through which to read, or indeed re-read, her fiction.
Perhaps I should conclude this review with an account of personal taste. I do not like reading Shakespeare and never have. I question the privileging of The Bard over other playwrights of the time, and struggle with the enigmatic figure into which he has been moulded. I am, however, fascinated by the performative and interpretive capabilities that plays afford. As has become clear, Atwood does not share my feelings: she is, and has always been, drawn to his writing. As expected, I am now eager to read Hag-Seed, if only to understand Atwood’s rendering of Caliban, but this is not all the talk left me with. As a fan of her literature, her words inspired within me a deep curiosity regarding not only what her work could give me, but how it could reshape my thoughts on Shakespeare. I went in with trepidation, unsure of how to reconcile my two personal preferences. I left not only eager to read Hag-Seed, but to explore the other rewritings of the Hogarth series. She may not have changed how I feel about Shakespeare’s writing, but I’m certainly curious as to where his work can take us next.