The Tempest v Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood rewrites a Shakespeare masterpiece

As a Patron of the Royal Shakespeare Company, I am lucky enough to get advance notice of the next season’s productions and when I learned that the RSC were performing The Tempest, I was thrilled. It’s not a play I had seen before and nor did I know the story.

Imagine then, if you will, how excited I was to learn that one of my favourite authors, Margaret Atwood, had been commissioned to rewrite the story of The Tempest in novel form. Bingo!

The Tempest starts with a great storm, during which the King of Naples and his entourage, including the Duke of Milan, are shipwrecked. Watching this drama unfold is Prospero, the former Duke of Milan, and his daughter, Miranda.

It becomes clear that Prospero has conjured the storm himself with the help of the sprite, Ariel, because this group are his enemies. Indeed, the Duke of Milan is in fact his brother, Antonio, who betrayed him for the title of Duke some twelve years previously.

Now, to Hag-Seed. Our Prospero has become one Felix Duke, renowned theatre director who gets unceremoniously sacked and ends up working in a prison where he teaches Shakespeare to the inmates. His latest project is… Yup, you guessed it, The Tempest.

Felix’s Miranda is not real, she is a memory he has recreated and transposed into the present as a mechanism to deal with the grief at losing his daughter.

Estelle pulls strings for Felix, both inside the prison and in organising the visit of the politicos. She is the Ariel to Felix’s Prospero, creating the ‘storm’ which brings them to him.

Just like Prospero, Felix exacts his revenge during the production but afterwards feels strangely unfulfilled. The result is an anticlimax. What does this teach us about the nature of revenge, methinks? Is it really worth it? Or shall we just hold our heads high, despite the injustice inflicted by those who wronged us?

All in all, a fantastic production of The Tempest by the RSC, as one would expect, and an amazing work by Ms Atwood. Again, no surprises there. Well worth the time on both counts, if you have the opportunity.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Is it still relevant today?

I was absolutely thrilled when someone suggested we read this for my local bookclub last month.

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Having just read the sequel a few months ago, I was very much looking forward to getting into this one again. I say ‘again’ – we actually read this at school, and I remembered that I had really enjoyed it.

I have re-read a number of books from childhood recently. Regular readers may remember my post about the Lord of the Flies and how being an adult can change our perspective on a story. I did wonder if a second reading of Harper Lee’s classic tale would have a similar effect.

There were lots of things about the story which I had completely forgotten. The touching sub-plot of Boo Radley and his affection for Jem and Scout springs to mind.

I remember as a child there was a house in our street which looked a bit neglected compared to the others. It desperately needed a lick of paint and a tidy up of the garden, and that probably would have done it. But to us children it was the topic of much gossip, as was the older guy who lived there, apparently alone. We used to make up stories about how he had murdered all the other children in the neighbourhood, and we used to wonder which of us would be next. (Jeez, I just got a shiver up my spine thinking about that!)

I had also forgotten the court verdict after the infamous trial, although looking at the story as a whole, it almost doesn’t matter.

So, I arrived at bookclub last month full of lots of things to say. Inevitably, most of us thought exactly the same thing: this story is most definitely as relevant today as it ever has been.

*** SPOILER ALERT *** For those of you who have NOT read the sequel, please do not read beyond this point!

I came across this great article from the Huffington Post which discusses what we really think of Atticus Finch (a literary hero so great that his first name is a popular baby name for white males in the US). Especially when we learn that he does not quite deserve the pedestal upon which we have perched him for such a long time.

Consider too the recent uprisings in the US, including KKK rallies and the figures relating to civilian killings of members of the African American population by white police officers. This is very sobering reading and tells us that racism is, in fact, alive and well in certain areas of the United States. Shame on them.

The Sociological Spectre of Apathy

This is going to be one of those blog posts which asks more questions than it answers, so please bear with me. I like to prompt debate about things which matter to me; this is one of them.

books1I have a friend I’ve known for half my life. I don’t see him very often and when we do meet up, like many friends, the conversation revolves around work, family and mutual friends.

Recently, he happened to mention that his eleven year-old son hadn’t performed as well in school exams as he had expected, and my friend was concerned about this.

Now, his son goes to a fee-paying school. Both parents work – his wife runs a lucrative domicilary care business and he is a company director in another firm as well. This is not a family that is short of resources in the slightest.

“I bet I know one reason why,” I said, and shot him a knowing look. “When was the last time he read a book for pleasure?”

“Oh, I dunno,” came the reply. “Reading’s not his thing really.”

…not his thing…

I shivered.

Sadly, I fear that my friend’s son is not alone. I hear this much more often than I would like to, and it fills me with dismay.

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Studies have shown (click here to read more) that those who read fiction are more inclined to be quick to empathise with others and especially when this reading skill is developed in younger children. It teaches them to detect and understand how certain actions affect the feelings of other people.

We all know how a good story allows you to feel what the characters feel. How many of us have laughed and cried, felt the glow of romantic love or the despair of grief, when reading a story? This is the power of a good author. My favourite books are those which have taken me on an emotional roller-coaster. I want to be reaching for the tissues when I read, I want to be moved.

But for children like my friend’s son, brought up with no books in the house other than his mother’s nursing textbooks, what does this do a child’s emotional development?

Not having my own children, it may be inappropriate of me to comment upon the upbringing of other people’s offspring. But, actually, I think there’s a wider issue here.

If children don’t learn to empathise, what sort of people do they turn out to be? Isn’t that sort of the definition of a sociopath? And, are we convinced that enough emphasis is put upon reading books for pleasure, both in schools and at home?

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As a little girl, my mum used to take me to the local library. In the middle of the children’s area I remember seeing an enormous wooden box, full of brightly-coloured books for young children. (It probably wasn’t all that big, but I was only a toddler at the time!)

Mum tells me, even now, that I would have favourites that I kept asking for, week in, week out. The poor woman must have been bored to tears having to read the same books over and over! But, I am eternally grateful to her for bestowing upon me the greatest gift in the world. For, in teaching me to love literature, she taught me how to escape this world and travel to far-flung places, to have adventures beyond my wildest dreams.

I flew with dragons; I fought demons and befriended angels; I toppled evil tyrants and replaced them on the thrones of lands far, far away; and, I fell in love, over and over and over, with characters who possessed magical abilities, and yet, ultimately, very human traits.

My life would have been immeasurably different without books. Certainly, I doubt I would ever have become a writer. In my opinion, it’s shameful that there are children growing up in our society without being shown the door into this enchanting world of books.

So, I would welcome your comments here. What are your experiences of teaching your own or other people’s children to read? Is it really that important, or am I just banging on about something which is none of my business, being childfree?

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