The Great Bard-stardisation: The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

on Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Hold back ye swords and spill not my blood for I speak only truth: I don't really care for Shakespeare (and can't simulate his style for shit). Having been forced to read every English teacher's favourite instrument of torture in high school, I never warmed to his purported mastery, despite the florid brilliance inherent in his wordplay. To be fair I've only read about four or five of the plays but I figure, as with any author, if I haven't liked him up to now, I ain't ever going to like him. Personal biases aside, however, I can appreciate the excitement that the discovery of any new play by the Bard might whip up. It has happened a few times in recent history, always leading to massive debate as to whether he actually wrote the darn thing. Now Arthur Phillips throws his hat in the ring, claiming to have discovered a hitherto unknown play, probably written in 1597, called The Tragedy of Arthur. Or at least that is the central conceit of his latest novel and superb act of literary ventriloquism of the same name.

The book is a hoax par excellence, structured in three equally beguiling parts. The first is simply a note from the publisher, a brilliant concoction that I suspect might actually fool some readers. It is but one of several small masterstrokes, such as the inclusion of both Phillips's and Shakespeare's previous works on the authorial bibliography page at the start of the book and a short biography of both writers at the end, that give the entire project an air of authenticity. Indeed, the whole thing is structured and presented in much the same way as any other Shakespeare play you might buy these days and, in that sense, is perfectly pitched to suck in the unsuspecting reader.

The second part of the book is Phillips's introduction, which the publisher has supposedly asked (well, forced) him to write. It is long, tortured and mostly compelling; the tale of how Phillips's father, a master forger, gave him this new play just before he died, swearing to the son that just this one time he was not pulling a swifty. It was, the father says, his way of making up for his absenteeism during Phillips's sad childhood. The introduction is the longest part of the novel, a two hundred and fifty page family memoir of disappointment and doubt, building to a crescendo of denial. As a stand-alone book, this would have been a touching read. In particular, the relationship between Phillips and his twin sister is beautifully told, making it all the more heartbreaking when they fall out over a mutual love (Phillips essentially steals and impregnates his sister's girlfriend). But it is the use to which Phillips puts this section that really makes it hit the mark. In a twist of pure genius, Phillips says that he does not believe the play is real, despite what all the Shakespeare scholars have said. Phillips claims he didn't want the thing published, and threatened to expose the hoax. But the folk at Random House shot back with threats to sue for loss of potential profit (and never publish any of his work again). They nut out a compromise - the publisher allows Phillips to mount his case against it but the play is going to be published as if it were genuine. It is a sly device on the part of Phillips. Spruiking its bona fides might have been funny, but it would also have made the joke more obvious. Here he gets to write a moving (albeit fictional) family memoir that invests the reader in the lie. It is far more convincing knowing that this highly-intelligent, well-regarded novelist does not believe in the product he is being forced to sell.

After almost three hundred pages comes Part Three, the piece de resistance: A complete five act play called The Tragedy of Arthur. Now I certainly do not lay claim to any sort of Shakespearean scholarship, but I bought it. The Tragedy of Arthur, stripped of the romanticism usually associated with the most-likely mythical king, is vintage Shakespearean tragedy. There is no round table. No Lancelot. And no Knights Who Say Ni. It is a bloody, treacherous tale of kings battling for the throne of a united England. Arthur (king of Britain) versus Mordred (king of the Picts), duking it out for a title, some land and the hand of Guenhera (who popular culture knows as Guinevere). Given my inability to grasp many of the allusions, or draw parallels between what was going on in the play and what had happened in Phillips's childhood, I was a little bored while reading the thing (sorry, Shakespeare does my head in), and believed myself not to have in any sense been captivated by the story. But then Act V came around with its litany of awful occurrences and I found myself shocked and emotionally drained. I'm not sure when it happened, but I was completely in its thrall. Heck, it may be homage and pastiche, but The Tragedy of Arthur is a damn good play. I'm hardly alone in thinking this. True Shakespeare aficionados have given this play the thumbs up and, apparently, there are moves to stage it. I, for one, would probably buy a ticket.

In keeping with the 'authentic style' of the book, Part Three comes complete with copious footnotes in which Phillips and a 'Shakespearean scholar' argue over various lines, the former to bolster his claim of its fraudulent character and the latter to dismiss Phillips and add his own typically earnest explanations. Recalling such notes in the plays I studied at school, I found it all quite hilarious yet tremendously effective.

Everything about this book, and the play contained within, is executed with style, flair and tongue firmly planted in cheek. It is a wonderful read, despite dragging a little in Part Two, and offers an experience we are otherwise denied: coming upon a Shakespeare play completely afresh, without the academic and theatrical baggage that inevitably attach to years of over-analysis. It is, I imagine, quite how the plays were experienced in the late 1500s.


Unknown said...

Equal parts Shakespeare, Nabokov, and Pirandello, this novel is a blast. It is the best riff on the reality v. illusion theme I've encountered in a long while -- certainly the most literate.
AC Repair Plano

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