The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: Review by James Shapiro

Arthur Phillips’ new novel is a witty take on a play the Bard may or may not have written. Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro reveals his own role in this literary game.

In September 2009 I received the following email:

Professor Shapiro,

I am a novelist (living in Brooklyn, of course, which is the law), and am working on a very Shakespeare-oriented project. I am hoping I could invite you for a coffee, drink, or meal and pick your brain a little bit about some arcane Shakespearean matters.

It was signed "Arthur Phillips." We had never met, but I had a hazy recollection of having been urged to read one of his early novels ( Prague? The Egyptologist?). I wrote back inviting him to drop by my office. At our first meeting he pulled out a facsimile of an Elizabethan title page of a play attributed to “W. Shakespeare” dated 1597, called The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain. It looked like the real deal—except that in the quarter century that I had been teaching and writing about Shakespeare I had never heard of the play.

I knew that the odds were a million to one that this was a fake, but I was also aware that copies of Shakespeare’s exceedingly rare quartos have turned up. The sole surviving copy of the 1594 quarto of Titus Andronicus was discovered in the home of a Swedish postal clerk in 1904; copies of Shakespeare’s long-lost plays— Love’s Labor’s Won and Cardenio—might yet be found.

Phillips didn’t keep me in suspense for long. It turned out—and this is a spoiler, for which I apologize—that he was nearly done forging The Tragedy of Arthur and had already enlisted the help of experts in designing its faux title page. He was hoping that I—and other scholars I might steer him to—would help him deceive readers by spotting any language, metaphors, or verse rhythms in his Tragedy of Arthur that rang false. It’s the kind of challenge no Shakespeare scholar can resist: if we can’t decide what’s Shakespearean and what isn’t, who can? So Phillips and I exchanged emails for the next few months, as I did my best to beat up on successive drafts of the play until I had run out of things to identify as un-Shakespearean. By the end things got a bit testy, as Phillips would protest that Shakespeare had in fact used a particular word or phrase elsewhere (“tilly-vally”!?) that I insisted sounded dead wrong. And I was irritated when he asked whether I minded being named in his book. I certainly did.

It’s the most ambitious book on Shakespeare I've come across in many years because it so deeply engages questions that matter. Does Shakespeare somehow invent us, or do we invent him?

I got off lightly, mentioned only in passing as the “tireless Brooklyn-born Ivy League Bardman” who sorely tries the patience of his dad, or rather, the father of his first-person narrator, Arthur Phillips, who is a lot like the author Arthur Phillips (go check Wikipedia), from the titles of the novels he has published, to his Minneapolis upbringing, to his birthday, April 23, which Phillips, his twin sister, and his father share with Shakespeare and with Nabokov as well—shades of Pale Fire duly noted. I hope that Phillips won’t cry foul when he learns that I’ve turned the tables and am now writing about him, though I’m curious to see whether Michiko Kakutani will recuse herself after reading (what I’m sure is fiction, and no names are named) Phillips’s version of “the career-bashing mistake of kissing and feeling up at a party at Yale decades earlier and then never calling” the “famously vicious and dismissive New York newspaper book reviewer” who later faulted his fiction for “‘a curious absence of empathy.’”

In the opening pages of Phillips’s Prague (which I’ve now read), the rules of a game called “Sincerity” are spelled out. Players take turns making four apparently sincere statements, only one of which can be true. The challenge is to deceive the other players (“the ability to simulate embarrassment, confusion, anger, shock or pain being highly prized”). The player who figures out when others are lying but best disguises his or her own deceptions wins. What serves as a point of departure in Prague is the defining obsession of The Tragedy of Arthur: what is real, what feigned?

Depending on how you read it, The Tragedy of Arthur is a callous attempt on the part of Random House to cash in on a likely forgery of a Shakespeare play, seemingly against the wishes of Arthur Phillips. Or it’s a novel about a character named Arthur Phillips who comes to doubt the authenticity of The Tragedy of Arthur (a posthumous gift from his father, a convicted forger, also named Arthur Phillips), who must for complex contractual and family reasons append the disputed play to what amounts to a rambling memoir. Or it’s a withering satire on the publishing world and the difficulty novelists now face in finding commercially viable projects. Or it’s a literary detective story. Or it’s a parody of the vogue for memoir, and the ways in which writers like James Frey have damaged that genre by blurring fact and fiction. Or—and this is how I read it—it’s a brilliant piece of literary criticism masquerading as a novel, one that wrestles with issues that Shakespeare raises for every writer and reader but that professors never quite confront.

It’s the most ambitious book on Shakespeare I've come across in many years because it so deeply engages questions that matter. Does Shakespeare somehow invent us, or do we invent him? What exactly is Shakespearean—and what makes his work seemingly inimitable? (If you think it’s easy imitating a Shakespeare play, try it; the last time anyone attempted such a hoax was back in the 1790s, when a teenager named William Henry Ireland forged a Shakespeare play called Vortigern and briefly fooled a lot of smart people.) Why do we identify so powerfully with Shakespeare’s characters? And why do we feel the need to find his life in his works? If you are haunted by such questions, you’ll find The Tragedy of Arthur a compulsively fascinating read.

James Shapiro teaches Shakespeare at Columbia University. His most recent book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (Simon & Schuster), is out in paperback.