Well into her 70s, Canadian author Margaret Atwood shows no signs whatsoever of slowing down. She has just released her latest book, Hag-Seed, a reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest inside a prison.
Atwood’s novel is part of a series of modern interpretations of the bard’s plays, which include Jeanette Winterson's The Gap Of Time (The Winter's Tale), Howard Jacobson's Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice), and Anne Tyler's Vinegar Girl (The Taming Of The Shrew).
The other novelists whose books will be published in the series are Jo Nesbo (Macbeth), Tracy Chevalier (Othello) Gillian Flynn (Hamlet) and Edward St Aubyn (King Lear).
Over the years, Shakespeare has been used in prison reform programmes to create empathy and understanding among inmates. An article in The Atlantic, Why Shakespeare belongs in prisons, saw the themes of his plays – ambition, greed, love, deceit, betrayal, and revenge – as being particularly resonant for criminal convicts.
In a video for Big Think, Atwood, the author of classic works such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, speaks about the impact Shakespeare had on prisoners.
“People are very conflicted about what prisons are for,” Atwood states at the beginning. “Are they to punish people and make them have the most horrible awful life possible? Or are they to open up other chances for them, or possibly a combo?”
An influential book for Atwood during the writing of Hag-Seed was Laura Bates's Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard, about her time spent teaching the bard's plays in a maximum security, all-male prison.
Atwood's explanation for why Shakespeare works in prisons is more straightforward: "Those people had been there and done that. They had assassinated Duncan," she laughs and says. "They can speak from experience about Shakespeare's accuracy in portraying how we feel."