Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 14, 2012


The Tragedy of Arthur,  Arthur Phillips (2011), 368 pp.

Can a book be categorized as fantasy, history, memoir, historical fiction, counter-historical fiction, tragedy, and humor? Oh, and also mystery and adventure?

Let me back up. There are 5 “Arthur”s involved in this book: 1) Arthur Phillips, the author. 2) Arthur Phillips, aka Artie, the narrator. 3) Arthur Edward Harold Phillips, Artie’s father, aka Dad. 4) Arthur Donald “Don” Phillips, Artie’s grandfather. And 5) Arthur, King of Britain and tragic hero of Shakespeare’s latest play.

Shakespeare’s latest play? WTF?

The reason you’ve never heard of this play is not surprising: It wasn’t included in the First Folio, there are no records of its ever having been performed, no traces of it exist — except for the single version of it that has been waiting in a safe deposit box for 50 years. In Dad’s safe deposit box to be exact. He gives it to Artie and says “Tell the world about this lost masterpiece, and grow rich from the proceeds. You’re welcome.”

Ah, but here’s the rub: Artie’s Dad has spent decades in prison as a result of a series of cons, all based on his forgery skills. So, Artie has to ask himself: Is this play really by Shakespeare? or is it some sick joke of his father’s?

Arthur, King of Britain

The book has 2 sections. The second one is the play itself, in typical Shakespearean style/language/etc found in his early historical plays. Five acts, tough choices for the hero, bastard villain (although, in this case, it’s the hero who’s the literal bastard), battle scenes, murder and rapine, blah blah blah. As far as Shakespeare goes, it’s so-so.

The first section, however, is what you want to read this book for. Ostensibly, it’s Artie’s Introduction, penned for the first publication of this play, but it’s three times the length of the play itself. You see, Artie has to decide if this play really is by Shakespeare, or if it’s another of his father’s forgeries. So his introduction is the story of his life — we need this, in order to understand his evolving connections to Shakespeare, his father, his twin sister, and his own writing self, and to understand which Arthur is the true tragic hero of this story.

Artie is caught between so many dichotomies: needing to be close to his twin sister, yet understanding that the closeness is debilitating; hating Shakespeare’s works, yet feeling the playwright’s indelible influence on his life; wanting to create works of genius, yet not trusting the changing definitions of what makes anything worth the title “genius”; hating how Dad abandoned him, yet never ceasing to want to impress the man by doing something unimaginably original.

Take that relationship with Shakespeare, for starters. Artie had it force-fed to him too early, and he grew quickly to detest anything having to do with the man. Yet Shakespeare’s language, themes, and plots drive the novel. Artie has his Romeo and Juliet moment of love-at-a-glance. He plays Caesar (or Antony?) to an exotic (Egyptian?) beauty.  He is Edgar to his father’s Lear, Malvolio to his sister’s Viola. Phrases, even entire paragraphs, echo lines from the Bard. Here’s Phillips’ version of Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy:

A child’s memory is poor because extraordinary events — I went to party! I tied my shoes! — occur in a world where Fridays are frequent but irregular, and hours swell and shrink. Older brains fritz because no event is sharp enough to trench into memory’s gravel. Eventually, little occurs that hasn’t occurred in a thousand identical yesterdays, yesterday and yesterday and yesterday sinking back and out of view behind you, and your neck is daily stiffer, resists turning to look.

It’s hard to say how much I loved this book, and moaned at every wrong step the hero takes. I wanted to climb into the pages and shake the poor man.

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