A Con Man Meets Shakespeare In 'Tragedy Of Arthur' The Tragedy of Arthur, the new novel by Arthur Phillips, tells the story of a con man, his son and an undiscovered work by William Shakespeare. Phillips speaks to Scott Simon about fraud and family drama.

A Con Man Meets Shakespeare In 'Tragedy Of Arthur'

A Con Man Meets Shakespeare In 'Tragedy Of Arthur'

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The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
The Tragedy of Arthur
By Arthur Phillips
Hardcover, 371 pages
Random House
List Price: $26
Read An Excerpt

The Tragedy of Arthur is a play within a novel within a mystery. Arthur Phillips and his twin sister, Dana, grew up with a love of Shakespeare imbued by their father, also Arthur Phillips, who has a fringe of "Einstein hair" and is charming to the point of seduction and shrewd to the point of brilliance. He is a con man, who paints masterpieces until he is imprisoned for it.

Then one day, the elder Phillips gives his son his greatest legacy: a previously undiscovered play by Shakespeare called "The Tragedy of Arthur." Is it a fraud? Is it for real? Is Arthur Phillips' real legacy the fact that you end up wondering what is real, what is not, and why does it matter anyway? In the end, the reader gets to judge the play on its own terms.

The Tragedy of Arthur is the latest work by one of the most acclaimed novelists working in the English language, Arthur Phillips. His previous novels include The Song Is You and Prague. Phillips spoke to Scott Simon on Weekend Edition.

On the confusing nature of having many different protagonists named Arthur, Phillips says, "Well, you've got confusing and you've got enchanting. It's certainly not meant to be confusing. I don't think it should confuse anyone if they plunk themselves down and read it. It should be a lot of fun."

The father Arthur Phllips tells a fantastic story: In 1958, he was hired to make a replica of a valuable painting for a rich man in England, and in his library, he finds a 1597 play credited to Shakespeare, "The Tragedy of Arthur." He takes it, and doesn't consider it a theft because the guy didn't know that he had it. The father's story is hard to believe, at best, but Phillips the author argues that it is possible.

"I think if anyone's going to find a new Shakespeare play that we haven't noticed before, that's not an unlikely place to find one," he says. "People in the 1600s and 1700s would buy up these quartos, essentially one play in paperback, and when they had eight or 10 of them they would stitch them together into a collection, and then they would hand-write a table of contents. That's a hard thing to keep organized over the centuries. Quartos are fragile; quartos don't necessarily make it for the long haul. Most of them are lost."

The first page of the folio discovered in The Tragedy of Arthur, a new book by Arthur Phillips. Courtesy Random House hide caption

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Courtesy Random House

But, of course, the man who "discovers" the lost quarto is a con man.

"It's certainly a plausible story, by the way, or he wouldn't be a very good con man," Phillips jokes. "On the other hand, he is a terrible con man, as he ends up in prison for most of his life. So maybe this is the one time he is telling the truth."

The virtuoso achievement among others in Tragedy of Arthur is that Phillips actually produces the play — rather than just referring to an undiscovered work of Shakespeare, he writes out all five acts.

"Yes, The Most Excellent and Tragical History of Arthur, King of Britain," Phillips explains. "Apparently published in 1597 based on an earlier, now lost edition, is included as the endpoint of the book."

The work, as good of an imitation as it is, doesn't sound exactly like Shakespeare's best. But as Phillips points out, not everything Shakespeare wrote was genius.

"I'm thinking I would like to see it put on stage sometime," he jokes. "And the marquee out on 42nd Street would say, 'It's better than Henry the 6th!' So, one of the things I wanted to get at in the book was ... I'm a big fan of Shakespeare, obviously, but he's not above serious discussion as someone that we admire as a great writer without having to talk about him as a deity beyond our human criticism."

One of the most humorous aspects of the novel is the back-and-forth between Arthur Phillips, the son, and the editors at Random House — which also happens to be the real Phillips' publisher, so they are in on the joke — and the way that the editors, even when told that the play may not be real, barrel ahead with the project.

Arthur Phillips is the author of Prague and The Egyptologist. He was born in Minneapolis, previously won Jeopardy five times and now lives in New York. Barbi Reed hide caption

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Barbi Reed

"Let's just say for a moment that I turned up at Random House and said, 'Look what I have here, it's a 1597 Shakespeare play that no one has ever heard of before,'" Phillips says. "I think everyone knows what that would be worth. So everyone in the novel goes to great lengths to authenticate it and prove what it is and what it might not be. But when the professors are lining up to say it's real, and the ink and paper specialists say it's real, one guy jumping up and down saying 'My father is a con man' is worth ignoring."

Phillips' book raises the question of whether or not, at the most basic level, a fraud can be just as good as the real thing.

"I do, in fact, care whether a book labeled a memoir is verifiable," Phillips says. "I do actually care whether something put forth as a Shakespeare play is a Shakespeare play."

So in the end, does Arthur Phillips, the con man, create something of value?

"Yes, I am ... what's the term, aesthetic empiricism? I'm one of those guys," Phillips says. "I think if it's good and you like it, then it's good and you like it. You should stick to 'it's good and I like it' no matter what people say, no matter if the write person wrote it at the right time. So I'm of the position that if you like it and you think it's good, then by definition, it's good."

Excerpt: 'The Tragedy Of Arthur'

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
The Tragedy of Arthur
By Arthur Phillips
Hardcover, 371 pages
Random House
List Price: $26


Random House is proud to present this first modern edition of The Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare.

Until now, Shakespeare's dramatic canon comprised thirty-eight or thirty-nine plays, depending on whose scholarship one trusted and whose edition of the Complete Works one owned. Thirty-six plays were included in the so-called First Folio of 1623, published seven years after the playwright's death. Two more — collaborations, likely delayed for copyright reasons — were added to subsequent collections. A thirty-ninth play, Edward III, has over the last two decades garnered increasing academic support as having been written, at least in part, by Shakespeare, but was published only anonymously in his lifetime, and is by no means universally acknowledged as a Shakespeare play. A further two works — Cardenio and Love's Labour's Won — are referred to in historical documents, but no copies of either have survived. Another dozen or so plays—the so-called Apocrypha—do exist and are debated, but none have acquired anything approaching scholarly consensus as being the work of Shakespeare.

The Tragedy of Arthur was published as a quarto in 1597. Its cover's claim that the text is "newly corrected and augmented" implies a previous version now lost, but this 1597 edition was, as far as we now know, the first play to be printed with Shakespeare's name on the title page, pre-dating Love's Labour's Lost by one year. Likely banned, or at least judged politically dangerous and therefore excluded from the 1623 Folio, only one copy of that 1597 quarto has so far been discovered. It was not found until the 1950s, and has been held in a private collection until now. The Tragedy of Arthur is, therefore, the first certain addition to Shakespeare's canon since the seventeenth century.

The story it tells is not the legend of Camelot most readers know. There is no sword in the stone, no Lancelot, no round table, no Merlin or magic. Instead, Shakespeare seems to have worked from his usual source for history plays, Raphael Holinshed's 1587 Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The resulting plot is something more like King Lear, a violent argument of succession in Dark Ages Britain. But, like Lear, it is about so very much more, and the white heat that courses through the whole structure is Shakespeare's unmistakable imagination and language.

Many people have worked with great dedication to make this book possible. It could not have come to pass without the academic leadership of Professor Roland Verre, who has overseen the research and tests that have confirmed the play's authenticity and William Shakespeare as its sole or primary author. Professor Verre submitted the text to a battery of computerized stylistic and linguistic examinations, solicited the critical opinions of his peers on three continents, and supervised the forensic study of the original document's paper and ink. Academic opinion has steadily grown in volume and certainty over the past year, and there is now no notable voice in Shakespearean studies who questions the authenticity of The Tragedy of Arthur.

Our gratitude extends equally to dozens more professors of English language and literature, theater directors and dramaturgs, linguists and critics, historians and Shakespeare experts who formed our ad hoc advisory board, as well as the specialists in ink, paper, and printing led by Dr. Peter Bryce, and a legion of researchers, editorial assistants, and legal experts. The contributions of Professors David Crystal, Tom Clayton, and Ward Elliott (whose Claremont-McKenna Shakespeare Clinic conducted the stylometry tests) demand particular recognition.

This first edition comes with a unique appreciation by a Random House author, Arthur Phillips. As his family played a central role in bringing the play to light and corroborating its authenticity, he was invited to write a brief introduction to this monumental work, even though he certainly does not claim to be a Shakespeare expert. He also edited and annotated the text of the play. Professor Verre has kindly amended some of Mr. Phillips' notes.

Despite Phillips' importance to the work's discovery, we would suggest that general readers plunge directly into the play, allowing Shakespeare to speak for himself, at least at first. Then, if some background is helpful, look to this very personal Introduction or to the many other commentators sure to be available soon.

The Editors

Random House/Modern Library

January, 2011


Arthur Phillips

internationally bestselling author of

Prague, The Egyptologist, Angelica, and The Song Is You

If you do not feel the impossibility of this speech having been written by Shakespeare, all I dare suggest is that you may have ears—for so has another animal—but an ear you cannot have.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, about Henry VI Part One

Shakespeare never did this. He never did this.
The Blow Monkeys, "Don't Give It Up"

Believe me, my friends, that men, not very much inferior to Shakespeare, are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio.

Herman Melville

Phillips himself evidently wanted to carry the performance outside the walls of the playhouse.

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World

I have never much liked Shakespeare. I find the plays more pleasant to read than to watch, but I could do without him, up to and including this unstoppable and unfortunate book. I know that is not a very literary or learned thing to confess, but there it is. I wonder if there isn't a large and shy population of tasteful readers who secretly agree with me. I would add that The Tragedy of Arthur is as good as most of his stuff, or as bad, and I suppose it is plausible (vocabulary, style, etc.) that he wrote it. Full disclosure: I state that as the party with the most money to be made in this venture.

As a cab driver asked in an ironic tone when I told him I was contractually bound to write something about Shakespeare, "And what hasn't been written about him yet?" Perhaps this: although it is probably not evident to anyone outside my immediate family and friends, my own career as a novelist has been shadowed by my family's relationship to Shakespeare, specifically my father and twin sister's adoration of his work. A certain amount of cheap psychology turns out to be true: because of our family's early dynamics, I have as an adult always tried to impress these two idealized readers with my own language and imagination, and have always hoped someday to hear them say they preferred me and my work to Shakespeare and his.

Even as I write that — as I commit it to print and thereby make it true — I know it is ridiculous. I cannot really feel that I am in competition with this man born four hundred years to the day before me. There is nothing in the cliché description of him as the greatest writer in the English language that should have anything to do with me, my place in literature, the love of my family, my own "self-esteem," to use an embarrassing word stinking of redemptive memoirs. I should be glad for the few words of his that I like, and think nothing of the rest, ignore the daffy religion that is the world's mad love of him. (Or, in the case of those troubled folk who don't think he wrote Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, equally mad disbelief.)

I am not by nature a memoirist, any more than Shakespeare was. I am a novelist. But if you are to understand this play, its history, and how it comes to be here, a certain quantity of my autobiography is unavoidable. Nobody comes off particularly well in the story of how we arrived here, except perhaps my sister, Dana. I certainly am not the hero. But I do have the legal right to occupy this discovery space outside the play for as long as I wish. No one may lay a red pen on me here, so if these turn out to be the last words of mine that Random House ever publishes, they will at least be true, and the record will be set straight, if only for a while, before it rewarps.

I will perform my contractual requirements— history, synopsis, editing, notes—but I have other things to say as well, and a few apologies to issue, before I creep off stage.

Excerpted from The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips. Copyright 2011 by Arthur Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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