Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is an allegorical retelling of William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Obviously. Rather than discuss the simplest possible interpretation for a thousand words we’re going to go over something interesting I thought of instead.
I have little interest in plays. And the book was too overt with what it was. I felt it could have benefited from a little subtlety, of which there was absolutely none. So I began searching for points in the novel that didn’t correspond to the play (I found none) but I found a part of the play that clearly didn’t make sense to Atwood, and it’s the part where Prospero apologises to the audience. I’m going to try explaining it.
My hypothesis is as follows: Hag-Seed is an allegorical retelling of the Biblical tale of Noah.
Our characters are as follows: Prospero/Felix is God (as he was implied to be in the original work). The prison population are Noah, Noah’s family and the animals of Earth, it doesn’t particularly matter who’s which. The three politicians represent the rest of humanity (much like the original story, an ‘earthwide’ flood is represented by a disaster over a relatively small area) because they were voted in and are supported by the majority.
The book begins with the people betraying God. They break the agreement that was previously established, or rather since God hasn’t yet made the Abrahamic covenant they commit acts of random evil. So God journeys to Noah, and asks him to build a massive ark, which is to say Felix asks the prisoners to put on a play, which is the vessel through which they will save themselves from the sinful and unappreciative world outside. They pick The Tempest, because of course they do.
In an inversion of the traditional Biblical story, God’s punishment here actually necessitates that the sinners enter the ark – that the politicians enter the prison – which they summarily do, and are suitably affected by a fake kidnapping and hallucinogenic drugs enough for God to end the punishment. We don’t know if it lasts for 40 minutes and 40 seconds, but it would have been a nice touch.
Felix promises to never stage another version of the Tempest afterwards, and asks for an apology from the prisoners (establishing the covenant with Noah.)
Wait. But why does Prospero apologise to the audience? My interpretation naturally posits that it’s because the audience is a further strain of Noah’s family. Atwood’s I was never satisfied with – just like the rest of her book it was excessively metatextual and I don’t know how much of that Shakespeare intended. I’m probably wrong. It matters very little to me if I am.
Now this is all well and good, but I’m now about to commit a truly stunning piece of what may initially seem like intellectual hypocrisy, and assert that Margaret Atwood did not write the Noah connection into the story purposely but it’s an accurate analysis of what she wrote into the story anyway.
After coming off two separate weeks where I disparaged the death of the author, how can I now support the idea that Margaret Atwood did not fully write this book?
The answer lies in the Biblical lectures by Prof. Jordan B. Peterson. Available for free on Youtube, Dr Peterson’s lectures will absolutely blow your mind, and I recommend them ridiculously highly. The following content is sourced from them.
Why are the Biblical stories not able to be held to the same standard as other staples of culture, you ask? How does ascribing the death of the author in their case not make me a hypocrite? Because the stories from Genesis aren’t merely foundational fictions with an attempt to justify the veracity of Abrahamic religion. They’re literally foundational stories, in the sense that they inform us about the very early stages of humanity.
The snake in Eden is a snake because it gives us vision and consciousness; in reality, humans require large brains to see. And we needed very badly to be able to detect snakes in prehistory because they’re damn fast animals. Pretty much anything could kill us, but snakes were particularly dangerous. So snakes, in a Darwinian way, forced our brains to gradually grow until we could see enough to avoid them, and our large brains somehow paved the way to consciousness, which is represented in Genesis as the consumption of the fruit from the tree of the ‘knowledge of good and evil.’
So what is the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil?’ And why did Adam and Eve ‘realise they were naked?’ Well, they became self-aware. They became self-conscious. They realised exactly how vulnerable they were, lacking any frontal protection despite being bipedal, and decided to put on clothes in a slight effort to protect themselves. And, when they knew that they could be hurt in certain ways, they looked at the other and thought “I know how I can be hurt, and I know how we’re alike, so I know how you can be hurt too.” This is what’s meant, (according to Peterson) by the ‘knowledge of good and evil.’
My point in saying all this is that the Biblical stories aren’t any sort of conscious calling of a pre-history, but a kind of proto-remembrance peppered with animalistic impressions and allegorical recollections. These are stories we’ve remembered, Peterson says, because they’re archetypal; I think that not only do we remember them for that but we unconsciously copy them more often than we believe. I would be willing to bet that quite a huge number of books could be easily compared to a particular Biblical story with no effort – if only someone with a good knowledge of the Book was willing to invest the time. It’s a hypothesis I can’t yet test.
And that’s why it’s not intellectual hypocrisy for me to say that my interpretation of Hag-Seed is correct, but denigrate the Death of the Author at the same time, even though Atwood never intended what I just said. Because the Biblical stories are basically genetically embedded in us, being expressions of our pre-historical nature as human beings, we can’t really escape from them for another few million years. So you better strap in for the ride, bucko.