The Tragedy of Arthur

Among Shakespeare's many gifts to posterity are the tortuous, often sublimely ridiculous theories his life and work have inspired. Did he write his own plays, or did Marlowe churn them out in happy retirement after faking his own death? Was it Oxford? Bacon? What about the hypothesis that the Money Pit, a periodically, unsuccessfully excavated sinkhole on Nova Scotia's Oak Island, contains "secret documents" proving the Baconian theory? Maybe we should get the Army Corps of Engineers on that one.

 

Arthur Phillips, in his introduction to Shakespeare's newly-discovered and almost-authenticated play The Tragedy of Arthur, silences that sound and fury for good. No, this is not a work of scholarship, though it suggests a scholar's familiarity with the canon, the bardolators, the blithering Tom o'Bedlams. It is, rather, a prismatic metafictional wonder: a fake memoir that blasts fake memoirs, while speaking passionately on family, memory, and identity; a publishing-world satire; a literary mystery; a comedy; a tragedy; and a pretext for Phillips's virtuoso, full-length imitation of a Shakespearean history play, The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain.

 

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

 

At least, that is, until his father unveils the ostensibly stolen quarto of the lost Arthur play, which seems, mysteriously, to be about Arthur himself.

 

This is just a taste of Arthur-the-real-life-novelist's sly comment 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 full flower in Harold Bloom's duly examined argument that Shakespeare created humanity and not vice versa.

 

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

 

The tricks, of course, are welcome too. The reader is tutored in stylometry, materials authentication, and even Elizabethan typography, and can't be 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 dad explaining why he waited so long to reveal his great discovery: "'I was like those Japanese businessmen or gangsters who buy stolen art masterpieces and keep them in their basement to look at all alone, naked.' (A comparison that vaults right to the forefront of any normal mind.)"

 

Nothing in The Tragedy of Arthur belongs to any normal mind, which is why it shames the Shakespeare controversialists and their tedious, tendentious theories—"[s]uch shadows are the weak brain's forgeries," to borrow from The Rape of Lucrece. Phillips's talent and creativity don't quite vault him into the empyrean with Will, but as far as we groundlings are concerned, they're close enough.

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

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