Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Margaret Atwood's Tempest Retelling: Hagseed

Admittedly, I have lost track of the number of times I’ve sat in a dim and cavernous church sanctuary such as this one, furiously scribbling notes in the attempt to keep up with Atwood’s quiet cleverness. This Tuesday evening, along with a large audience in the Christ Church Cathedral, I was treated to a delightful mix of William Shakespeare and Margaret Atwood.

Interestingly, this evening marked not only an enjoyable event from a Writers Festival favourite, but also the announcement of this year’s winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award, Madeleine Thien. Additionally, this year marks the 80th anniversary of the Governor General’s Literary Awards, and the 30th anniversary of the Public Lending Right Program. Appropriately so, Canada Council’s Peter Schneider opened the event with a gracious tribute and commitment to literature in our nation.

Shortly thereafter, attendees were presented with a most apropos introduction to a discussion of Atwood’s most recent publication, Hag-Seed: a rousing reading from the original Shakespearean text of The Tempest. As anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of Shakespeare will know, the work of the Bard is best understood when watched and heard rather than read, and this certainly was true of the Prospero/Caliban reading from Walter Borden and Keith Barker.

It is worth mentioning that because Hag-Seed takes place primarily in a correctional facility, Atwood’s rousing reading selection left me attempting to imagine Margaret Atwood quasi-rapping among a group of burly prisoners. Surprisingly, this wasn’t a terribly hard task after all. Once Atwood completed her own Shakespearean performance of sorts, Susan Coyne engaged Atwood in a phenomenal discussion of her history with Shakespeare and how that manifested itself through her retelling of The Tempest.

Hag-Seed is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which offers additional retellings of The Taming of the Shrew, The Winter’s Tale and Merchant of Venice. As such, it was only logical to consider how Atwood came to Shakespeare in the first place. Interestingly, she recounts her first experience of Shakespeare being Lawrence Olivier’s Henry V, a result of her parents being unable to find a babysitter. Similarly, when Atwood herself wanted to see a production of Hamlet and was without appropriate childcare, she brought along her daughter and daughter’s friend and tasked them with counting character deaths.

One of Atwood’s standout moments from this evening’s event was her response to a question on how to educate teachers on instructing their high school students how to write. She made reference to Wattpad, an anonymous online platform where authors can get positive peer feedback while maintaining a nom de plume. Having been a high school teacher myself at one point, Atwood’s advice rings true: the fear of ridicule and criticism is an immense barrier to young writers.

This evening’s event was yet another reminder that Margaret Atwood has become no less than a national treasure. If her diverse canon of work isn’t sufficient proof for Atwood’s talent, her wit, charm and ability to pull off gas station skeleton gloves should certainly suffice.