A Faux Folio At The Heart Of 'The Tragedy Of Arthur' Taking a page from Nabokov's Pale Fire, Arthur Phillips' new novel The Tragedy of Arthur presents a "long-lost" Shakespearean play, along with a foreword by a less-than-convinced narrator, also named Arthur Phillips. The playful conceit leads to a ribald, wily debate about authenticity and delusion.


Book Reviews

A Faux Folio At The Heart Of 'The Tragedy Of Arthur'

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

It's no secret that Arthur Phillips, king of a round table of self-deluded characters, is a devotee of Vladimir Nabokov. All of his novels, beginning with Prague (2003), showcase disarmingly brainy playfulness, rapier wit and acrobatic verbal sparring. His fifth book, The Tragedy of Arthur, is his wildest and funniest yet, at once homage to Nabokov's Pale Fire, satire of literary hagiography in general and Shakespeare scholarship in particular, and a hilarious yet trenchant riff on memoirs. His concept is so clever and fantastic — a long-lost Shakespeare tragedy is reluctantly ushered into print by Arthur Phillips, the skeptical son of a convicted forger — that the only question, through guffaws, is whether he can sustain it.

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

For The Tragedy of Arthur, his first book set (partly) in his native Minnesota, Phillips has once again mastered and mocked a realm of scholarship. The Egyptologist (2004), an archaeological murder mystery set in 1922 Egypt, featured a crazed, anagrammatic stand-in: deranged scholar Ralph M. Trilipush. Angelica (2007), a study in hysteria set in Victorian London, cast dark shadows on psychotherapy, ghost stories and Henry James. Dozens of popular song titles were imbedded in Phillips' last novel, The Song is You (2009), which evoked Nabokov's Lolita with a flirtatious cat-and-mouse multimedia chase.

Like Pale Fire, The Tragedy of Arthur spins a long introduction and pseudo-scholarly footnotes around a fabricated poetic work, leading to a ribald, wily debate about authenticity, illusion and delusion. At its heart is an unknown five-act Shakespearean tragedy purported to be the only extant copy of a 1596 quarto pinched by the author's father from an English country manse in the 1950s. At his father's instruction, narrator Phillips retrieves this quarto from the safe deposit box in which it has been locked away during the decades his father was locked away in prison — for multiple forgeries, including lottery tickets and the promotion of a "small picture, briefly, from anonymity to Rembrandtivity."

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

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Courtesy Random House

In order to explain his family's involvement in this document's publication in a Modern Library edition, the Phillips character casts his eye back "across time's moat," necessitating, to his horror, a plunge not just into the "Fakespeare bog" but into "that most dismal," "underregulated" genre: memoir. Doing "the legal minimum, lest the whole freyed tissue unravel" (note pun on disgraced memoirist James Frey), his confessional saga centers on his confused relationship with his unreliable, "flamboyantly literary" father. Memoirist Phillips is torn between dismissive doubt and wanting to please this man who extols "wonder and magic, disorder, confusion, possibility" and scorns facts, debunkers, and "Santa Clausicidal maniacs." As is often the case in Shakespeare, Phillips' story involves a twin — bipolar, lesbian actress Dana, who, unlike her brother, shares their father's fondness for the Bard.

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

The Shakespearean work in question, when we finally get to it, is a tour de force of fanatically researched stylistic mimicry. It's somewhat heavy-going, but its punch lies in the running battle between the Phillips character and Professor Roland Verre (a glass-half-empty sort of fellow) waged in the footnotes. Where Phillips sees his father's manipulative hand in the play's anachronistic echoes of Dr. Strangelove, in characters named for his father's enemies, and in his own shared birthday with the work's central character, King Arthur, Verre sees Phillips' delusional narcissism. He repeatedly cites Shakespeare's source material and the positive results of various forensics tests to debunk Phillips' assertions and defend the play's authenticity — casting Phillips not as reasonably skeptical but as crazy. On the shared birthday, Verre comments, "there are many far more likely explanations for this reference than that the play was forged to honor a twenty-first century American novelist."

Full of jousting and jesting, the thrust and parry of The Tragedy of Arthur is deliciously stimulating. And how's this for a disclaimer, from King Arthur:

I am no author of my history.

What man knows aught of his own chronicle?

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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