Shakespeare, William, The Tempest vs Atwood, Margaret, Hag-Seed (Module A: Textual Conversations)

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HSC English Advanced – Textual Conversations – Study Guide

Initial considerations

Believed to have been the last play Shakespeare ever wrote alone, The Tempest has undoubtedly been a staple in theatre and the world of literature and art in general. Its surprisingly optimistic depictions of human flaws, ambitions and motivations has encapsulated precisely what it is about Shakespeare that has captivated audiences for four centuries—it tells universal stories through enticing, fantastical situations.

As such, there has inevitably been a colossal response to such a momentous play and playwright. Of the more established reactions comes Margaret Atwood’s 2016 novel, Hag-Seed, a modern reinterpretation of the underlying themes that made the original source material so well-loved. Under the Module A: Textual Conversations unit, it is our responsibility to understand precisely what makes the relationship between these two interconnected texts so unique, and what that says about the broader world of art.

Some significant aspects of the texts that one should always consider whilst formulating a Textual Conversations thesis include:

  • What changes and what stays the same

    • Must assume that Atwood makes these choices deliberately, then answer why she does this

  • Changes in setting between the source material and the adaptation

    • Mystical island versus medium-security prison

  • The effect of social and historical context on the composers’ respective texts

    • Social commentary made by both composers

  • Metacommentary

    • The Tempest as Shakespeare’s swan song to playwrighting

    • The actors’ reflections on the characters and the play

  • Atwood’s purpose in reinventing the play

    • How and why texts have such an extended effect on humanity

Background to The Tempest and Hag-Seed

Comparing the composers’ contexts

William Shakespeare, born 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, was one of the world’s most notable poets, authors and playwrights—arguably the most recognised and performed playwright of all time. In his career, he wrote some 39 plays. However, it should be noted that his works only became literary classics or part of the canon posthumously, and that they were the Elizabethan England-era equivalent of soap operas today. Essentially, he wrote with no intention of becoming such a prestigious author—his main concern was creating stories that were pertinent to both universal and immediate audiences through the dynamic world of theatre.

The Tempest was written in 1610 and was first performed at Court by the King’s Men in the autumn of 1611. At this time, colonialism was on the sharp rise. In 1607, the English had begun on colonise America, and we see Shakespeare’s response to this historical movement largely through the commentary made about Sycorax’s island and the court’s treatment of Caliban. Concurrently, the philosophical movement of Humanism—which essentially suggested that humans were inherently good and always had the ability to realise this moral potential—was at its apex, clearly manifesting in the play through its surprising diversion from Shakespeare’s well-known tragic formula into a romantic comedy.

Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood is a decorated Canadian author born in 1939 and is still an active author today. Using novels and essays as a medium through which she can express her beliefs about contemporary social and environmental issues such as feminism, climate change, religion and the power of language, she clearly hails from a very different era than Shakespeare. Yet, many of the themes within their respective texts remain the same—ambition and treachery and the power of forgiveness—as a homage to the more universal aspects of what makes us human. It is what has changed between Prospero’s journey and Felix’s revenge plan that can give us insight into the “conversation” the two texts are having about their respective contextual concerns.

Literary significance

Hag-Seed was hailed by Viv Groskop as a “magical eulogy to Shakespeare, leading the reader through a fantastical reworking of the original but infusing it with ironic nods to contemporary culture.” Indeed, it is a refreshing interpretation of the Elizabethan play that, in its own merit, is “riotous, insanely readable and just the best fun.” However, its literary significance lies in its ability to represent a classic story about fundamental human emotions and desires in a way that is both relevant to Atwood’s contemporary contextual concerns and a respectful homage to the original material.

Textual Conversations between The Tempest and Hag-Seed

As with any prescribed (and related) text, we must first look to the Textual Conversations rubric to understand what it really is that we are asked to do. In fact, every potential HSC examination question can come only from this rubric—though at times it could be less obvious and masked by synonymous language—so it is imperative that we study the links between The Tempest and Hag-Seed and the major points in the Textual Conversations rubric.

Let’s look at some example questions you could receive in the HSC examination and what aspect of the rubric it most closely reflects (remember, some questions can be a combination of different elements of the rubric, as well as theme-specific!). Then, we will deconstruct the ways you could explore this the two texts as the basis of your thesis.

Resonances and dissonances in texts

  • Potential question: By performing a comparative study between The Tempest and Hag-Seed, one’s understanding of the thematic resonances and dissonances between texts is enhanced. To what extent is this true?

  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “In this module, students explore the ways in which the comparative study of texts can reveal resonances and dissonances between and within texts.”

Essentially, this rubric statement is asking one to consider the similarities (resonances) and differences (dissonances) between the two texts. Hag-Seed being a reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s 1611 play inevitably means there are many parallels—however, it is equally important to note and explain to the marker what has changed, and why Atwood has made such changes. More specifically, the wording of this statement implies that you must consider what Atwood and Shakespeare agree and disagree on.

For example, one glaring difference between the texts is the setting of the story. While the original play largely takes place on Sycorax’s island, Atwood takes the readers to present-day Canada, primarily at the fictional Fletcher Correctional Centre. Here, Atwood reveals a physical and tangible manifestation of the “prisons” in which the characters of the Shakespeare play are metaphorically trapped in (there is even a lengthy discussion of this as the actors dissect their assigned text!). From this, we can extrapolate a major difference between Atwood and Shakespeare’s context—a magical island and grand plots of usurpation do not necessarily blend in to this contemporary world, and while Atwood is partially aiming to pay a homage to the playwright, she also has to appeal to her immediate audience.

However, many the central themes of the text remain intact, even if they have been appropriated in the novel to fit. Felix is still a bitter playwright (as Prospero was a playwright of the tempest) who has grand ideas of revenge before realising his dire need to accept the past and forgive. The power of magic, largely in respect to the theatrical form, is still thoroughly explored and aptly deconstructed. Unveiling the complexities of Othered or alienated figures in literature and in real life is an issue that concerns both composers. It is almost as though Atwood is telling Shakespeare and her readers in this “textual conversation” that some aspects of humanity never change, even if centuries have passed and the story is taking place in a completely different location.

Reimagining and reframing texts

  • Potential question: In what ways has Atwood reimagined The Tempest in a way that suits contemporary audiences whilst still mirroring details portrayed in the original play?

  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “Students consider the ways that a reimagining or reframing of an aspect of a text might mirror, align or collide with the details of another text.”

Hag-Seed is very bluntly a reimagination of the ideas presented in The Tempest. In fact, it is what many deem an appropriation—in art, this is loosely defined as the act of “taking well-known images and putting them into other contexts.” Similarly, the story of a man plotting his revenge against his usurpers has been appropriated and reframed by Atwood to suit a more contemporary audience.

Consider the following “reimaginations” of significant aspects of the original text:

  • Audio-visual and digital media, the internet or the hallucinatory effects of recreational drugs as “magic”

  • Character counterparts

    • Which characters are the manifestation of Caliban and Ariel? Is it simply one character, or do a collective take the mantle?

  • Form

    • Why does Atwood choose to adapt the play into a novel? Could it be argued that her appropriation is a play within a play within a novel?

  • Miranda having died at the age of three

  • Changes to the original text that the Fletcher Players make

    • Ariel becoming an alien instead of a spirit

    • Rap numbers

    • Disney princesses as the three goddesses

    • Using the correctional facility as a set

One must understand precisely why Atwood makes the choices she does, especially in reference to the context in which she produced the novel in. Moreover, it is suggested that (the novel being part of a larger collection meant to pay an homage to Shakespeare in light of the 400th anniversary of his death) many of these more contemporary adaptions are meant to bring the works of the great playwright to a new generation. In your essay, you must essentially answer whether Atwood has achieved this.

Issues, values, assumptions and perspectives

  • Potential question: How are values concerning the Other explored in The Tempest, and how does Atwood respond to Shakespeare’s perspective on this issue in Hag-Seed?

  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “In their textual studies, they also explore common or disparate issues, values, assumptions or perspectives and how these are depicted.”

Being composers of very different contextual periods, Shakespeare and Atwood certainly hold different values and perspectives on particular issues. One obvious concern that remains at the core of both texts is the idea of the alienated Other—largely Caliban in the original play and his collective manifestation in the Fletcher Correctional Players. In The Tempest, Shakespeare undoubtedly plays into his immediate audience’s perceptions of what native people act, look and are treated by others like. After all, during the Age of Discovery in which the play was produced and primarily performed in, it was appropriate to ridicule “savage” natives encountered alongside new land. However, it is also worth noting that Shakespeare challenges this way of thinking by representing Caliban more confrontingly than in other texts of the period that explored similar issues of colonisation. Though he is not blameless—he does have plans for usurpation and attempts to rapes Miranda—the characters of “civilised” background have similar plots. Shakespeare thus shows that Caliban is no more a “demi-devil” or “credulous monster” than the rest, and is undeserving of being reduced to such demonic epithets. After all, is it not an act of hypocrisy and cultural imperialism to distinguish the colonisers as any better than the natives? Perhaps, Caliban only even becomes cruel because of Prospero’s attempt to “nurture” him. It was him who “taught [Caliban] language,” seen in Shakespeare’s works as indicative of one’s values and even morality, and it is him who admits, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.” The metonymy for Caliban’s malice is ultimately recognised as his conqueror’s doing through the first-person pronouns.

Clearly, Shakespeare has a complex perspective on the role and implications of colonisation on the lives of natives—many would adopt a postcolonial reading of the play and assert that he was aware of the injustices that the English forced upon those they encountered during this Age of Discovery. However, this notion has been and is still being debated by literary critics, who draw from other racially charged and even seemingly anti-Semitic (see; The Merchant of Venice) plays he wrote to counter this argument.

In response to this, Atwood’s stance on the issue is much less vague than Shakespeare’s, largely because she has less reason to be. In fact, Felix even makes a point of mentioning that “In this day and age Caliban is the favourite, everyone cheers for him.” Fifteen out of the twenty Fletcher Players pick this character to play him because his experience of being imprisoned and oppressed by more powerful figures is deeply familiar to the inmates. Here, it is almost as though Atwood is telling readers that the beauty of Shakespeare lies not in simply what his personal perspectives on such a controversial issue was, but how even such a problematic character can hold personal significance to the right audience. The character of Caliban is hence “free” through the magic of art and literature, even if the inmates themselves are not.

Intertextuality

  • Potential question: How does undertaking a comparative study between The Tempest and Hag-Seed enhance your understanding of how texts are influenced by other texts?

  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “By comparing two texts students understand how composers (authors, poets, playwrights, directors, designers and so on) are influenced by other texts, contexts and values, and how this shapes meaning.”

Intertextuality can be defined as the “relationships between texts that help to shape a text’s meaning or the echoes of other texts within a text.” NSW English Textual Concepts explains the significance of intertextuality as “it leads to a much richer reading experience which invites new interpretations as it brings another context, idea, story into the text at hand. As new layers of meaning are introduced, there is pleasure in the sense of connection and the continuity of texts and of cultures. These connections mean that a responder is engaging with a broader literary heritage than just a discrete text. Intertextuality also invites us to revisit the earlier text, often with new insights into its meaning for our time.”

Naturally, intertextuality plays a major role in Hag-Seed. It is, after all, a complete reinterpretation of an original text. Many of the novel draws upon the idea of reflecting on the original text and, as NSW English Textual Concepts states, it thus broadens the meaning of a text and creating an intricate web of ideas. However, one may also be surprised to learn that The Tempest was significantly influenced by other texts of Shakespeare’s time. It could be argued that there is no text that exists independently of the world of the creator—every text is simply a response to a constantly evolving and ongoing conversation that composers aim to contribute to.

Many believe that The Tempest originated from a reading of a letter written by a sailor, William Strachey, detailing the experiences of a shipwreck survivor. On 24th July 1609, a fleet of nine English vessels were nearing the end of a supply voyage to the Bermudas when it ran into “a cruel tempest,” leaving them stranded on an island. Gonzalo’s notorious commonwealth monologue echoes Montaigne’s essay Of the Canibales, of which Caliban’s name could even pass as an anagram for. The masque that comprises much of Act IV is speculated to have been only added later in honour of Frederick V and Princess Elizabeth’s wedding in 1613. Prospero’s final speech is almost a replica of a speech given by Medea in Ovid’s poem, Metamorphoses. Stephano and Trinculo bear striking resemblances to the commedia dell’arte stock characters, Arlecchino and Brighella, and Prospero and Miranda mirror Pantalone and his virtuous daughter, Isabella—the Italian theatrical form was extremely popular at the time of The Tempest’s production.

Ultimately, what one should gain from these insights into the influences of the play is that, just as Atwood was responding to a particular story created by a playwright four centuries ago, Shakespeare himself wrote The Tempest as a response to the world of literature and art that already surrounded him. Understanding this and being able to reflect on it in an essay is of utmost importance—you must show the marker that you realise the significance of the relationship between texts, and just how intricate a single text can be due to intertextuality.

Text and context

  • Potential question: To what extent is The Tempest, and Atwood’s reimagination of the play in Hag-Seed, influenced by the values of the respective composers’ context?

  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “As students engage with the texts they consider how their understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of both texts has been enhanced through the comparative study and how the personal, social, cultural and historical contextual knowledge that they bring to the texts influences their perspectives and shapes their own compositions.”

Just as a text cannot exist in isolation from other texts, both The Tempest and Hag-seed are little more than products of the context in which they were produced in. Incorporating ideas about contextual influences into your comparative study of the play and novel will help your essay become more well-rounded and comprehensive—show your understanding of what has changed and what has stayed the same as a result of the changing contextual circumstances.

For example, the changing illustration of magic between the two texts is indicative of the cultural atmospheres of the respective composers. Shakespeare was revolutionising the theatrical form which, at the time, was relatively simple, with grand stage directions and special effects. Magic could even be read in the play as a metaphor for Shakespeare’s own form of magic—playwrighting—and Prospero’s willingness to give it up was reflective of the composer’s personal context, in which he returned to a more quiet life with his family shortly after the release of The Tempest.

As mentioned before, however, magic in the novel manifests quite differently. Atwood explores how magic-like qualities can be created through the use of special effects that have become possible due to the technological capabilities of the contemporary world in which she wrote Hag-Seed in. She also plays into drug culture and the hallucinatory effects of such recreational, illicit drugs that have become of significant interest in recent years.

The fact of the story of a king being usurped being transposed into an average man being betrayed by power-hungry, work colleagues also shows the shifting tone of what is appealing to audiences of the time. No longer are kingdoms and royalty and the “natural order” so imminent to the 21st century—Atwood realised that such a story would have to be more engaging to the popular novel reader, and hence decided to set it in a relatively digestible modern-day Canada.

What we can draw from this relationship between texts and their contexts is that, whilst many issues are relevant to a universal audience, these “textual conversations” allow us to reinvent specifically what they mean to us.

Prominent themes

Power, politics and revenge

Of the many themes that connect The Tempest and Hag-Seed, the one that stands out the most are the complex issues of power, politics and revenge—all of which go hand-in-hand with each other. Both Shakespeare and Atwood have important things to say about such concepts, while remaining pertinent to their unique contexts, ultimately resulting in an ongoing conversation that remains alive as we conduct comparative studies between such texts.

In The Tempest, Stephano and Trinculo’s roles as comic foils to Antonio and Sebastian—the former supposedly more absurd, yet both causing similar pandemonium with equally selfish ways of thinking—reveals humanity’s innate opportunism in obtaining power when beyond the confines of society’s rigid structures, provided by the surrealist elements. This directly mirrors Prospero’s character arc. He explains to Miranda with a bitter tone, “Thy false uncle … new created // The creatures that were mine … set all hearts i’th’state // To what tune pleased his ear, that now he was // The ivy which had hid my princely trunk, // And sucked my verdure out on’t.” However, this is gradually resolved as Prospero shifts from refusing to admit culpability for his neglected kingdom to telling Alonso, “to thee and thy company I bid a hearty welcome.” Adhering to the conventions of romances—which has the potential to result in the likes of a tragedy until an optimistic turn of events—and Humanist views of the time, his increasingly warm tone shows the centrality of mercy and forgiveness to the human spirit. That is, he will rule his kingdom with the same mercy that he showed his traitors.

In Hag-Seed, however, there is no kingdom to defend. If there is, it is of a very different kind. Felix Phillips is instead at the apex of his directing career, only to be ousted by Sal and Tony, who are modern adaptations of Alonso and Antonio, respectively. Here, the game of power is translated from the court to a professional vocation, and even to politics. By making this change, Atwood is even making a comment on the deep corruption that she considers to be central to the deterioration of the state of modern politics.

Both texts assert that revenge is an inadequate way of dealing with others or confronting one’s problems, particularly when the issue of power and influence is involved. That is, some issues seem to pervade humanity no matter how many centuries have passed. However, by reappropriating the text, Atwood has successfully given the original play new meaning to the implications of power, politics and revenge to suit a more contemporary, Western audience.

Magic and illusion

At the time of The Tempest’s production in the seventeenth century, magic was of great cultural significance. The burning of witches and the publication of books on the issue, including one by James I, bears witness to its place in public thought. Considering aspects from Sycorax’s role as the evil witch to the eponymous tempest that Prospero conjures, the rather fantastical tragicomedy displays an explicit use of magic that, consequently, had a much greater effect on Shakespeare’s contextual audience than can be felt today.

Understanding the social implications of exploring magic on how the original text would have been received, Atwood introduces a new kind of magic to a new audience—that of drug culture and technological manipulation—in order to continue to engage in this textual conversation about the unclear line between illusion and reality. Felix is able to conjure his own type of magic through the help of 8Handz, who uses audio and visual effects to trick Tony and Sal into seeing things that are not really there. Here, Atwood asserts how the same issues can pervade humanity, although our changing cultural and technological paradigms certainly can influence the ways in which this is true. Ultimately, she shows how society has managed to create their own kind of magic.

The power of theatre

Perhaps, a more recognisable “magic” that exists in both the play and the novel is the magic of art and the form of theatre. The power of performance and art lies in its ability to fashion alternate worlds and shape realities that have the potential to produce. As Felix’s plays in the novel, “the collective indrawn breath, the collective sigh,” but also to allow us to know ourselves better. Perhaps, this is the most important connection one must make whilst formulating a Textual Conversations essay. Both Shakespeare and Atwood illustrate the ways in which art can unite people, can candidly portray the worst of humanity whilst inspiring hope that we may choose to change—Shakespeare by creating this unbelievable, magical world of “oh, wonder!” despite telling grounded stories about humanity’s inherent downfalls and Atwood by immortalising the original text, presenting it in a new fashion to ultimately prove that theatre is as impactful today as it was in 1611.

Imprisonment vs freedom

The motif of prisons finds itself in the spotlight of both texts, though it is illustrated more literally in the novel than in the source material. Indeed, this should be taken metaphorically—an exploration of what can chain humanity down and, consequently, how we should aim to set ourselves free.

In fact, Felix even goes so far as to as that The Tempest is “a play about prisons.” We see a thorough explanation in the novel of such prisons in The Tempest when Felix sets the class an assignment to name the various jails that weigh the characters down, whether literal or metaphorical, as well as who the prisoner and jailors are. By framing the narrative of the novel around the play whilst still providing plausible reason for such a metacommentary on analysing the original text, Atwood successfully uses Hag-Seed as a medium through which she can deconstruct Shakespearean works in an entertaining, engaging way.

Consider the parallels in the ways in which the characters or both texts are imprisoned, and how they are eventually freed from such confines. It is only when Prospero forgives that he is free from the island, as well as his uncontrollable anger, and it is only when Felix forgives that he is free from Miranda’s ghost, as well as his grief. There is also the issue of the “ninth prison” being the play itself, how Prospero’s swan song at the end of the play is Shakespeare’s supposed farewell to the confines of the stage, as well as the fact that then novel is set in a prison.

All of these reincarnations of the prisons and freedoms that the characters experience are homages to the composers’ respective purposes and contexts. Atwood strives to shed light on the cultural implications of the original play by providing very direct commentary on the shackles of humanity to her readers. Ultimately, she re-asserts the importance of forgiveness, mercy and understanding as a way to set ourselves free from the self-imposed prisons we suffer under.

The Other

Alienation and Othering occurs frequently in both texts, and certainly in more than one way. Consider the minority groups in The Tempest, namely the allusion to indigenous natives during the Age of Discovery through characters such as Ariel and Caliban. Shakespeare uses the concept of the Other largely for two reasons. First, he draws on his immediate context and deeply reflects values of colonial and patriarchal rule. Paradoxically, he also uses these characters to secondly challenge such values by drawing attention to the injustices of the imperialist society in which the play is set, and in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries were living. The inherent contradiction is largely the reason that The Tempest is still one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, and largely why we consider important to constantly delve into the meaning built within and beyond the play.

Atwood chooses to subvert this initial representation of the link between colonisation and Othering by denying the aforementioned characters as clear a counterpart as Antonia, Alonso, Gonzalo and Sebastian are—Caliban becomes the collective prisoners. He finds a voice through 8Handz, WonderBoy, Red Coyote and so on, who are all people that have been marginalised by society in some way or another (which is not to say that they are faultless, like Caliban himself is not a flawless character). One could draw the conclusion that, by translating Caliban’s native status to the Fletcher Player’s inmate one is to make the social commentary about the way we treat the justice system and incarcerated men. Prospero’s forgiveness of Caliban’s sins as an integral part of his self-growth could reflect the importance of society’s ability to treat others who have done the world wrong with mercy and kindness, as to end the vicious cycle of the Other. However, the fact of Felix being a potential reflection of Caliban—hence, the centrality of the latter’s derogatory nickname as the title—could also, perhaps, be Atwood challenging Shakespeare and presenting an alternate view that we are all, in some way or another, this deeply Othered and isolated character. Oppressed and enslaved by a greater power, the director’s “shack” can be seen as echoing Caliban’s hovel, and the Miranda-ghost as his “isle full of noises” and unrequited desire for human connection.

And while not ostensibly Othering them, women in society have often been reduced to mere artefacts or functional This issue of gender roles and the father-daughter relationship is revisited and argued by Atwood extensively in Hag-Seed. As a departure from the Shakespearean version of Miranda, Atwood entwines a plot that largely relies on Miranda to progress. Without her, Felix would never have had the desire to put on a production of The Tempest. In fact, Atwood consciously appropriates Miranda in a way that resurrects her so as to justify her actions and their underlying feelings, rewriting her story in which she is presented as both the narrative’s impetus and a self-sufficient woman. By doing so, Atwood gives the reader the chance to reconsider the values that lie behind the original play; she makes the reader wonder what would happen if the real story had been written like that—if Elizabethan society, as well as our own, had not excluded female voices from the narrative.

Conclusion

Both The Tempest and Hag-Seed are engaging texts in their own right. However, it is only when studying their inherent relationship with each other, as well as with other texts and the world of the composers, that they come to life. In fact, this is Atwood’s overarching purpose in her appropriation of the play—to shed light on the importance of art in understanding fundamental human concerns that bridge across time and space. She recontextualises the story of Prospero to not only bring and celebrate Shakespeare’s work to a new generation, but to make nuanced social commentary on issues that are pertinent to her own context, as well as to deconstruct the colossal amalgamation of ideas that the source material presents. It is, in every respect of the phrase, a textual conversation that both Shakespeare and Atwood actively engage in, and one that you must continue to speak on.

Final tips

  • Learn to define the question in your own terms—this is what your thesis is. By defining the key phrases in the introduction, you can manipulate any given question so that it fits your plan/ideas about the text

  • Avoid writing memorised essays. It is incredibly easy to recognise when a student has done so, and markers are ultimately judging you based on how well you are able to think critically and not simply regurgitate an essay

  • Write lots and lots of practise essays. You may (and should) begin setting no timer so that you can clearly express your thoughts without timed pressure, but gradually move on to putting yourself under exam conditions so that the actual assessment will feel familiar to you. This, as well as actually writing essays out on paper and not simply on a computer, is going to make a huge difference that is relatively simple to adopt

  • It is imperative that you discuss form in your essay even if the question does not ask for it. Of course, in that case, it would not have to be your primary concern, but even a sentence or two about the differing structural features or language used in the play and novel could show the marker that you really understand the intrinsic relationship between these texts

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