The Tragedy of Arthur

AmongShakespeare’s many gifts to posterity are the tortuous, often sublimelyridiculous theories his life and work have inspired. Did he write his ownplays, or did Marlowe churn them out in happy retirement after faking his owndeath? Was it Oxford? Bacon? What about the hypothesis that the Money Pit, aperiodically, unsuccessfully excavated sinkhole on Nova Scotia’s Oak Island,contains “secret documents” proving the Baconian theory? Maybe weshould get the Army Corps of Engineers on that one.

ArthurPhillips, in his introduction to Shakespeare’s newly-discovered andalmost-authenticated play The Tragedy ofArthur, silences that sound and fury forgood. No, this is not a work of scholarship, though it suggests a scholar’sfamiliarity with the canon, the bardolators, the blithering Tom o’Bedlams. Itis, rather, a prismatic metafictional wonder: a fake memoir that blasts fakememoirs, while speaking passionately on family, memory, and identity; apublishing-world satire; a literary mystery; a comedy; a tragedy; and a pretextfor Phillips’s virtuoso, full-length imitation of a Shakespearean history play,The Most Excellent and Tragical Historieof Arthur, King of Britain.

“I have never much liked Shakespeare,”Arthur-the-authorial-surrogate confesses on page one. His father, a convictedforger and con man, had foisted bardolatry on Arthur and his beloved twin, Dana(yes, twins—the Shakespearean parallels come hard and fast) from earliestchildhood. Arthur traces his beginnings as a novelist to a desire to please hisfather, often absent because jailed, and his sister, who shared her father’sobsession. But, in an adulthood marred by a ruined marriage and a crisis ofidentity, Arthur finds it easier to resent his father’s habitual favoritism,manipulation, and dishonesty.

At least, that is, until his father unveils the ostensibly stolenquarto of the lost Arthur play, whichseems, mysteriously, to be about Arthur himself.

This is just a taste of Arthur-the-real-life-novelist’s slycomment on the way one can see anything and everything in Shakespeare’s plays,the whole panoply of human glory and folly. It is a tendency that reached fullflower in Harold Bloom’s duly examined argument that Shakespeare createdhumanity and not vice versa.

Sly comments aside, we never quite find out the truth. Arthur-the-play may be the last con of acareer criminal, or it may be a late-stage bid to win back the love of awronged son. Come to that, it might be the real thing. As Arthur tries toconvince himself that the play is a forgery, and then that it isn’t, and thento rehearse these Hamlet-like vacillations for his Random House editors,Phillips gleefully delivers more than any book owes us. His is a uniquecritical and personal perspective on Shakespeare, by turns hilarious,heretical, and affecting, but it’s his heartbreaking story of familial betrayalthat ensures this book is no mere bag of academic tricks.

The tricks, of course, are welcome too. The reader is tutored instylometry, materials authentication, and even Elizabethan typography, and can’tbe bothered to care whether any of the information is accurate. Finally,Phillips’s humor, a significant part of what he calls the “fingerprint”of true authorship, is all his own. Here’s but one example, Arthur’s dadexplaining why he waited so long to reveal his great discovery: “‘I waslike those Japanese businessmen or gangsters who buy stolen art masterpiecesand keep them in their basement to look at all alone, naked.’ (A comparisonthat vaults right to the forefront of any normal mind.)”

Nothing in The Tragedy ofArthur belongs to any normal mind, which is why it shames the Shakespearecontroversialists and their tedious, tendentious theories—”[s]uch shadowsare the weak brain’s forgeries,” to borrow from The Rape of Lucrece. Phillips’s talent and creativity don’t quitevault him into the empyrean with Will, but as far as we groundlings areconcerned, they’re close enough.