TORONTO - Margaret Atwood offers a modern retelling of "The Tempest" in her latest novel "Hag-Seed," but her literary exploration of the Shakespearean play dates back more than a decade.
In "Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing," one of the characters the legendary Canadian author explores is Prospero, the protagonist of "The Tempest."
"He has a good side, and he's often played just as benevolent and good," Atwood said of the exiled Duke of Milan, who finds refuge with his daughter on an island after being banished by his brother, Antonio.
"But if you really look at that, there are other things to be said. Number 1, his predicament is his own fault, and that's what Shakespeare would have understood. He wasn't a good duke. He should have been paying attention to his dukedom. Instead, he put his brother in charge and went off to study magic."
Like William Shakespeare's other works, Atwood said "The Tempest" leaves a lot of unanswered questions and possibilities about the characters, which she found intriguing.
"Starting at the end with that very peculiar epilogue which ends with three words: 'Set me free.' What are you asking to be set free from?"
"Hag-Seed" (Knopf Canada) is the fourth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which sees the Bard's works retold by acclaimed and bestselling contemporary novelists.
Atwood's novel centres on Felix, who is unceremoniously booted from his role as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival.
After living in exile and mourning the death of his daughter, he sees a possibility to exact revenge when he takes on a job teaching theatre in a prison.
"Every single one of them is imprisoned in some way," Atwood said of the characters in her novel. "So there is a reason why objectively that might be a good setting to put on that play in."
As it turns out, "Hag-Seed" bears eerie similarities to another a real-life story in Italy the author learned of after finishing her book and sending it off for publication.
"A man who was in prison and put on 'The Tempest' while he was there found it such a transformative experience that now that he has gotten out of prison he has made a career of going and teaching Shakespeare in prisons," she said.
"He has written a book about it, which I long to have translated so I can read it.
"I thought: 'Wow, isn't that interesting.' But given the text that he would have been looking at (and thinking): 'How will I interpret this? How will I put it on?' we both obviously came to some of the same conclusions."
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