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The Folger Spotlight

Collection Connections: ‘Hag-Seed’

Collection of character sketches from a 1904 production of The Tempest, on the top is a picture of ship in a storm, on the bottom a picture of a small figure watching a boat on the horizon on a rock
Collection of character sketches from a 1904 production of The Tempest, on the top is a picture of ship in a storm, on the bottom a picture of a small figure watching a boat on the horizon on a rock

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Dr. Emma Poltrack shares the items she presented on March 4, 2021 as an introduction to Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here.

Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare, a series which asks contemporary novelists to reimagine a selection of Shakespeare’s plays. Touching on themes of adaptation, performance, and incarceration, it is a novel rich with avenues to explore.

The Tempest is one of 18 plays published for the first time in the 1623 collection of Shakespeare’s works known today as the First Folio. Written around 1610/11, the play was likely first performed at the Blackfriars theater, which would have lent itself to the number of special effects called for in the text. A notable adaptation appeared in 1667, when Sir William Davenant and John Dryden collaborated on The Tempest, or The Enchanted Island. This play added a number of additional characters, creating more roles for women and focusing on the romantic plots to make the play more attractive to Restoration audiences. Thomas Shadwell expanded the text further in 1674, incorporating the work of various composers to create an opera. The Davenant/Dryden/Shadwell version would dominate the stage—with some slight interruptions—until 1838, when William Macready restored Shakespeare’s text to performance.

To make room for all the changes, the Davenant/Dryden/Shadwell version reduced the size of Caliban’s role. Played initially as a drunken buffoon by actors known for comic or grotesque roles, Caliban underwent an evolution. By the time Herbert Beerbohm Tree took on the role in 1904, the character had taken on a newfound dignity, aided by the restoration of previously cut lines and the influence of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, which gave audiences a new way to think about the character.  Tree’s production at His Majesty’s Theater gave the character prominence, ending with the nobles returning to Milan and leaving Caliban, alone and bereft, watching the ship sail away in the distance.

The incarcerated men of Atwood’s fictional Fletcher Correctional Institute are resistant to potentially playing Ariel, and their perception of the character as delicate and feminine draws on a long performance history. Until the 1930s, it was common for the character to be played by a young woman (sometimes a child) skilled in singing and dancing. This 1838 illustration of Penelope Horton (left) in the role is strikingly similar to Viola Tree’s depiction in the sketches from Tree’s production almost 70 years later. C. Walter Hodges’s costume design from a mid-20th-century production shows a deviation from the light, airy dresses with striking color and a more substantial profile. Both Ariel and Caliban continue to evolve in performance, with more attention now paid to the play’s colonial themes.

As part of his lesson to the incarcerated men, Felix further identifies nine prisons within The Tempest. Shakespeare often wrote about prison, including in Richard III, Richard II, King John, and Measure for Measure. However, in Shakespeare’s time, imprisonment was not often used as a form of punishment on its own. Rather, it was used to hold people until their issue was resolved, be it through trial, pardon, satisfying creditors, or other means. Prison keepers made their living off of the fees prisoners paid, which included standard charges for entry and discharge. Additional payments could ensure access to comforts such as private accommodations or food and drink. Those unable to pay were neglected, and this petition from the prisoners of the White Lion (left) complained that if they were not given more space, they would lose use of their limbs due to cramped and confined conditions. Meanwhile, an early 17th-century account of a Lenten feast gone wild (right) shows what happens when those with means within the system are allowed to indulge in excess.

Both Shakespeare’s play and Atwood’s novel offer a wealth of paths for exploration. To explore all of the items from the discussion, visit the collection on LUNA.

Registration for the April 1 session on Ethan Hawke’s A Bright Ray of Darkness opens Tuesday, March 9. We hope you make a plan to join us!