Through comparing texts, one may better understand the values of a text which are inextricably shaped by its context. Moreover, one must also consider the influential role of the composer themselves, who through their depiction of these values shape the responders’ reception to the text. Propagated in 1611, Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest’ (TT) examines the key concerns of illusory magic, the frail and defenceless depiction of women and the portrayal of the ‘othered’ character. While Atwood examines the same concerns in her 2016 novel ‘Hag-seed’ (HS), a comparative study highlights the different ways in which composers express and incorporate these values consequently allowing these concerns to be enhanced, transformed and carried through time. Accordingly, the key concerns and values within a text are founded upon the values of the audience and composer alike.
The use of illusion and magic as a central tool of manipulation is a clear point of resonance between both texts. In ‘The Tempest’, magic in the form of wizardry and spells is employed by Prospero to alter events to his powerful advantage. With the effective use of enjambment, he states, ‘My high charms work / And these, mine enemies…They are now in my power,’ highlighting his power in rendering his enemies helpless, binding them through his web of illusions he has weaved. In the early 17th Century Elizabethan era, the inclusion of magic in plays, specifically through pompous stage effects and theatrics attracted an overwhelmingly positive reception from the audience – arguably justifying Shakespeare’s purpose in granting Prospero’s ability to conjure magic. This ability is furthered explored in ‘Hag-seed’ with Atwood reframing and redefining how magic manifests, especially to accommodate a contemporary audience. Felix (the modern embodiment of Prospero) states on separate occasions, ‘Audio and visual checks…MP3s…and pixie dust pills stored in the bottle of painkillers.’ Through the collective use of symbolism and alliteration, Atwood integrates the current modern landscape, alluding to the rapid advancements in technology through computerised special effects and ‘magic’ in the form of hallucinatory drugs – where both are utilised by Felix as devices of power to manipulate his revenge. Thus, as Atwood mirrors and maintains Shakespeare’s perspective that illusory magic is a form of manipulation, one can better appreciate how this manifestation has changed over time.
Shakespeare’s original depiction of women as defenceless and frail collides with not only Atwood’s contemporary, reimagined depiction but her values as an author and feminist. Prospero throughout ‘The Tempest’ calls and dismisses Miranda – his daughter and only female character in the play – as he pleases. He remarks, ‘Will ever after droop. Here, cease more questions. Thou art inclined to sleep. [Miranda sleeps].’ The effective use of a tricolon combined with an affirmed stage action concretes the frailty of women as she, the sole female role, remains perpetually under the control of another. Shakespeare’s Elizabethan era deemed women to lack intelligence, rationality and courage, bidding them to neither be present nor perform in professional theatre roles – further justifying Miranda’s portrayal as defenceless and frail. However, Atwood in her own right as a skilful author and dogmatic feminist simultaneously pays homage to Shakespeare’s contextual depiction whilst vehemently challenging it. As ‘Hag-seed’ incorporates a ghostly Miranda, Felix can maintain his ‘power’ and control over her as she is a mere figment of his imagination. With the use of anaphora, he states ‘She doesn’t have a room. She has no bed. She never sleeps,’ – supplementing her ethereal nature and Atwood’s decision to maintain this common value. However, a dissonant feature between ‘The Tempest’ and ‘Hag-seed’ is the introduction of Anne-Marie. Although cast as Miranda in Felix’s play, she embodies a different persona as ‘[she] takes a hefty pull at her beer’ and states ‘It’s because you think I look like a kid. No tits.’ Her register, mainly spoken colloquially presents her as a fierce and outspoken character, a likely description of young women in the 21st Century. The audience can see Atwood’s firm beliefs as a feminist as she challenges the concept of women as weak; a clear dissonance between the pair of texts. Thus, through the undertaking of this comparative study, one can better understand the societal values that have changed over time, especially in regards to the depiction of women.
Atwood’s ‘Hag-seed’ offers a disparate interpretation of the ‘othered’ character compared to Shakespeare’s canonical portrayal. In ‘The Tempest’, Caliban, the only native on Sycorax’s island is viewed as a ‘credulous monster’, with Prospero spitefully referring to him as ‘A devil, a born devil, on whose nature / Nurture can never stick.’ Through the use of irregular syntax, one can apprehend his clear dislike and distaste for the native creature. Moreover, Prospero’s antipathetic treatment of Caliban mirrored the European colonial societies’ treatment of the natives in 1611 when colonialism was on a sharp rise. Shakespeare clearly expresses his criticism and distaste for England’s colonisation of America through the interplay between Prospero and Caliban, shaping the characterisation of the ‘othered’ character. However, Atwood, in her 2016 contemporary novel, ultimately transforms this belief by reframing what it means to be the ‘othered’. When Felix is counting the votes, he discovers that 15 out of the 20 prisoners nominate themselves to play Caliban. In an active dialogue, he questions ‘Why do you want to play him?’ to which the prisoners promptly respond, ‘We get him.’ In ‘Hag-seed’s’ social setting of a modern Canadian prison, the ‘othered’ is actually what the prisoners seek to be as they are seeming ‘devil-like’. Therefore, one can promptly deduce that even though Caliban is portrayed as a ‘credulous monster’, he is the character that most of the prisoners in this contemporary setting and context feel most ‘free’ to express themselves through. Thus, Atwood’s purpose in transforming this belief allowed the audience to recognise that even the most ‘devil-like’ of characters can still hold a powerful prestige to the right audience.
Thus, through the undertaking of this comparative study, one understands the context’s immense influence in the values that are present in a text to a great extent. Through the close examination of Shakespeare’s 1611 play ‘The Tempest’ and Atwood’s 2016 novel ‘Hag-seed’, their key contextual concerns of illusory magic, the frail and defenceless depiction of women and the portrayal of the ‘othered’ character are enhanced and transformed over time, creating resonances and dissonances between the pair’s interpretations. Thus, the composers’ ability to portray these contextual values differently within their text enhances the audience’s understanding of these values, ultimately shaping their and reception and enjoyment of the text.