A renewed interest in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 classic “The Handmaid’s Tale” may have elevated her already prominent profile, but it’s her most recent book, “Hag-Seed,” that brings her to Madison this month.
As part of a UW-Madison Center for the Humanities program, the 77-year-old Canadian author will speak to more than 1,000 high school students on April 3 about her retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Her 2016 book, “Hag-Seed,” is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare initiative, in which contemporary authors like Jeanette Winterson, Gillian Flynn and Atwood craft novels inspired by the Bard’s plays.
Emily Clark, the associate director for the Center for the Humanities, said that the release of Atwood’s book last year was “serendipitous” for the center’s Great World Texts program, which is aimed at getting high school students to engage with world literature across time and space. With “Hag-Seed,” Atwood “does both of those things,” Clark said.
“Not only were we asking her to come speak about a text she’d been living with,” Clark said, “but also to speak in the context of her project of reimagining that text, which is what Great World Texts asks participating students to do as well.”
In “Hag-Seed,” Atwood casts Shakespeare’s Prospero as a modern-day actor mounting an interpretation of “The Tempest” in a prison, with inmates as the cast and crew.
Conor Moran, director of the Wisconsin Book Festival, weighs in on “Hag-Seed” as important because it draws new readers into timeless tales.
“It’s fairly common to see Shakespeare retold, but so often it’s the same plays,” Moran said. “How many great versions of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ have we seen? I think it’s remarkable how Atwood is able to take such a fantastical story and breathe new meaning into it.”
With her retelling of “The Tempest,” Atwood tells the story twice, with her lead actor living out a version of the story all while directing the play.
“Seeing how the trickery and magic that occur in ‘The Tempest’ played out and updated with technology and modern motivations is exactly what gives these stories their vibrance,” Moran said.
The original play is this year’s selection for the Great World Texts program, which targets books that might not usually be taught in high school classrooms. High schools apply to the program, Clark said, and participating schools are provided teaching guides and copies of the book. Teachers are then brought to UW-Madison twice during the year to hear from faculty and scholars who are experts on the selected text.
The program culminates with a student conference, where high schools present their interpretations of the text. Atwood’s lecture is the keynote.
Devin Garofalo coordinates the Great World Texts program, and she said that Atwood’s rewrite is an ideal read for high school students.
“It reimagines the plot of ‘The Tempest’ in terms that are familiar: It is set in the present, hinges on a prison production of the play, is rendered in modern English and ties into contemporary pop culture by way of its engagement with rap and other art forms,” Garofalo said.
“It also reimagines the world of the play in terms that are so foreign to the world in which it emerged that it offers students an entirely novel way of reimagining Shakespeare’s text.”
Atwood’s work “leaves an indelible impression on readers,” Moran said. “Just look at the lasting legacy of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ 32 years after it was written.”
That book is debuting as a 10-episode series on the online video service Hulu later this month, starring Elisabeth Moss.
For those not in the high school crowd who’d like a chance to see Atwood speak, she’ll be delivering a talk the same evening at Union South, which has a seating capacity of 1,000. According to Clark, from the Center for the Humanities, “we’ve received an insane number of inquiries about her talk.
One guy called to tell us he’s driving here from Texas because Atwood is his girlfriend’s favorite author and this is the only chance they’ll have to see her,” she said.
“We’re making an exception to reserve those two a couple of seats.”