Published October 2016.
“’Shit’ off bounds,” he says. “Adjust your cursing accordingly.”
“’Shit’ was okay last years,” says Leggs. “So how come?”
“I changed my mind,” says Felix. “I got tired of it. Too much shit is monotonous, and monotony is anti-Shakespeare. […]”
In “Hag-Seed” by Margaret Atwood
When approaching Shakespeare in the twenty-first century many writers make an attempt at re-inventing the classical plays, updating the setting to a post-modern world of chaos, smartphones, Facebook, and Google+. Relating the stories of Shakespeare to the lives of people in 2016 can be utterly hectic to watch when done well; we can feel an honest connection to the drama of the world of the play when set in our everyday backdrop. But pitfalls come with re-imagining the world of any Shakespeare play: if it’s not fully coherent then it’s just an update for an update’s sake, not a new spin on the story to shine a new light on it. There is a lot to be said for a way that modern readers connect to they wouldn’t otherwise read in the first place. I find that particularly the audio/visual differences should be quite significant when it comes to adapting a play to a modern setting. If I were an actor, I think my performance of Shakespeare would be quite different if I were living in Elizabethan times. I feel the director (and the actor as well ), in modern day, should be responsible for delivering archaic text so it could first be comprehended objectively by an audience that weren’t used to listening, but without sacrificing truth to character or believability, which are equally important to understanding a story. I know that is my experience as a theatre goer. Sometimes I feel the director and actors did a good job. Sometimes I don’t. At the end of the day it often feels like an impossible task.
An attempt at retelling a Shakespeare play must be daunting for a writer. And also for a reader. That’s why, up until today, I always avoided reading Shakespeare retellings. But I shouldn’t have any fear. Atwood is on the job. This rehash is anything but; it’s filled with Atwood’s characteristic wit and play with language. She’s quite unmatched when it comes to weave several threads into a cohesive whole. I never thought she could pull this off, but she did. She exquisitely entwines the language of Shakespeare into her tense and ever sparkling prose, making the text take a life of its own. Only Atwood would be able to bring such exquisite pleasure, when it comes to Shakespeare’s curses; they’re the only curse words the prisoners are allowed to use; it’s an elated spree of Shakespeare’s language, from insults like “whoreson” and “hag-seed” to enigmatic lines like “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine”:
‘Bent Pencil takes the floor and reads out, gravely and impressively, in his best board-meeting voice: “Born to be hanged. A pox o’your throat. Bawling, blasphemous, uncharitable dog. Whoreson. Insolent noisemaker. Wide-chapp’d rascal. Malignant thing. Blue-eyed hag. Freckled whelp hag-born. Thou earth. Thou tortoise. Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself. As wicked dew as e’er my mother brushed, With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen, Drop on you both. A southwest blow on ye, And blister you all o’er. Toads, beetles, bats light on you. Filth as thou art. Abhorr’d slave. The red plague rid you. Hag-seed. […]”’
It's surely only a matter of time before someone adapts it for the theatre. And it would make a great play. I only wish the prisoners/actors were more fully fledged. As it is, they’re merely ciphers, but I’m not sure it wasn’t intentional on Atwood’s part. Despite its very minor shortcomings, I’m not embarrassed to say that I did have a lump in my throat by the end of this retelling of the Tempest…