Michael Dirda reviews Arthur Phillips’s ‘The Tragedy of Arthur’

Michael Dirda
Critic April 20, 2011

What is “The Tragedy of Arthur”? Is it, as the evidence suggests, an edition of an unknown play by William Shakespeare, prefaced, quite properly, with a detailed history of the events leading up to the discovery of the 1597 quarto, the basis for the present Random House text? The reader must judge. Given our contemporary inclination to skepticism about everything, it is only natural that some uncertainties will always remain about the play’s authorship.

Much of the critical introduction by Arthur Phillips does sound — to be charitable — rather like typical family memoir. But then Phillips is no scholar of the Elizabethan stage, simply the lucky owner — in a sense, the “onlie begetter” — of the single surviving copy of “The Tragedy of Arthur.” By trade a novelist, he admits that his own feelings for Shakespeare, shaped largely by paternal bardolatry, are ambivalent at best. In these very pages he even names Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as “the real greatest writer in English literature”! Perhaps a kindhearted reader — grateful for Phillips’s role in bringing to light this masterpiece — should just shrug off the writer’s egregious allusions to his own life and every one of his books, starting with “Prague.” It does seem strange, however, that Jennifer Hershey, the Random House editor behind this project, permitted Phillips to quote at length from their sometimes heated private correspondence.

Given that none of the tests — of paper, ink and style, by several experts — have proved inconsistent with what the play appears to be, it’s little wonder that Random House has gone ahead and published, with considerable fanfare, “The Tragedy of Arthur.” The text is printed in its entirety, with explanatory footnotes, albeit with Elizabethan spellings modernized for the present-day reader. Such a presentation will hardly satisfy Shakespeare scholars, but for anything more sophisticated we will have to wait for the New Arden edition, which, we can only hope, will be overseen by someone at least as accomplished as the late William Henry Ireland.

Of course, there are those who deny outright the play’s authenticity and others who may even accuse Arthur Phillips of nothing less than fraud. To minimize any possible unpleasantness, Phillips has tried to cover himself, rather feebly, by insisting that the dust jacket of “The Tragedy of Arthur” declare, in tiny type, “a novel by Arthur Phillips.” But who’s fooling whom? The first line of the book’s actual preface forthrightly, boldly proclaims: “Random House is proud to present this first modern edition of ‘The Tragedy of Arthur’ by William Shakespeare.” One could hardly be less ambiguous than that.

Besides, would any sane 21st-century author spend uncounted hours fabricating a five-act drama in Elizabethan blank verse? Even without all the expert testimony, “The Tragedy of Arthur” certainly sounds Shakespearean: “Our backs are pressed to th’raging Humber’s waves; / There is no way but forward, as in life.” Admittedly, the speeches do contain a few unsettling observations about the relationship between the real and the counterfeit, as when Arthur tells his beloved Guenhera, “What can I say that was not elsewhere false?” or later soliloquizes, “So abjuration is forbidden me. / I am no author of my history.”

Still, even the most cursory reading of the more than 250-page preface makes clear Phillips’s complete, virtually confessional honesty. He doesn’t try to hide the fact that his con artist father was sentenced to prison for forgery. If anything, he is overzealous in his need to tell us everything that might influence our understanding of “The Tragedy of Arthur.” He describes his deep affection for his twin sister, Dana, an actress well known to theatergoers in the Twin Cities. He makes no secret of his ambivalent feelings for his often absent dad, nor does he hide the various erotic escapades of his youth and the breakup of his marriage to a Czech model. Being a novelist, he naturally falls into a style of reminiscence that could be likened to fiction.

But is a man to be suspected of contrivance simply because he happened to be born on April 23, the same day as William Shakespeare? I suspect that most readers will greatly enjoy Phillips’s easygoing and digressive, if admittedly self-absorbed introduction. Just think of the joyless academic prose that a professional Elizabethan might have produced! As for the occasional parallels between the play’s action and elements in Arthur Phillips’s own life, are these not simply further proof of Shakespeare’s universality? In the mirror of his genius, we all see ourselves.

Yet there is, as it happens, some third-party evidence to lend support to the genuineness of “The Tragedy of Arthur.” Through some sort of editorial inadvertence, the publicity packet sent to reviewers included a letter between Phillips and Random House attorneys about a possible breach of contract as well as a disturbing report from a firm of well-known investigators. From these, it is clear that Phillips did all he could to distance himself from the play and, indeed, to prevent its appearance. Why? Because he could not shake off his suspicion that it had been created — through means unknown to science — by his own father. Fortunately, Phillips’s contract and the preponderance of scholarly opinion have ensured that the world is now able to read, and appreciate as it deserves, “The Tragedy of Arthur.”

Still, mysteries remain concerning the play’s provenance and just how it came to be found in Minneapolis. One possible explanation takes an anti-Stratfordian line. Shakespeare, Phillips’s sister has suggested, was merely the frontman for the true authors of his supposed works, a secret duo consisting of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, and an unsung Jewish poet of genius named Binyamin Feivel, who later changed his name to Ben Phillips. The 1597 quarto of “The Tragedy of Arthur” — its cover reproduced as a frontispiece in this Random House edition — was simply passed down in the Phillips family until it reached the present day.

Despite all this corroborative material and reasonable guesswork, there are doubtless readers who will still regard “The Tragedy of Arthur” as some kind of post-modern, tongue-in-cheek trick, as an elaborately structured comic novel in the form of a memoir about a Shakespeare-obsessed, dysfunctional family. In such a view, Arthur Phillips has simply used his own artistry, so similar to his father’s con-artistry, to create a mirage, an illusion, an elaborate textual trompe l’oeil. Pfui. As soon doubt the truthfulness of Lucian’s “True History” or impugn the careful editorial commentary in Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.” Certainly, “The Tragedy of Arthur,” however you view it, shows off a writer at the top of his game. Just remember what Touchstone says in “As You Like It”: “The truest poetry is the most feigning.”

Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Visit his book discussion at washingtonpost.com/
readingroom
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THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR

A Novel

By Arthur Phillips

Random House. 368 pp. $26

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