Early in the novel The Tragedy of Arthur, protagonist Arthur Phillips describes what motivated his father (Arthur Phillips, Sr.) to trick the world into believing that the crop circles he created in the middle of the night with the help of his two young children were the work of aliens. “To astonish. To add to the world’s store of precious possibility. To set the record crooked once and for all, so that someone’s life (some stranger’s) was not without wonder.” Whether you find that sentiment poignant and beautiful or simply BS is at the heart of The Tragedy of Arthur.
Arthur Phillips, author and son, grew up being constantly let down by his father, a con-man who sees the scams he perpetuates almost as a service to the world. (To complete the quote above, “It almost seems like a charitable act, if you subtract his ego.”) He is in and out of prison for such wonder-lacking scams as forging coupons and lottery tickets, which he sees as a victimless crime because, let’s face it, those people weren’t going to win the lottery anyway (which as defenses go, isn’t the worst I’ve heard). Where Arthur is left bitter and disappointed, his twin sister Dana is ever forgiving, perhaps because she and their father share a special bond in their love of Shakespeare. Arthur can’t get on board with the Shakespeare-worship no matter how much he loves Dana, and he becomes an author in his own right, maybe out of a need for approval, maybe to prove he is better.
With two months left on a 22-year prison sentence and nearing the end of his life, Arthur’s father reveals that he has a secret, a little project that he would like his son to work on with him. He has hidden an undiscovered, unpublished Shakespeare play called The Tragedy of Arthur, and he wants Arthur Jr. to help him publish it. Not only will it be a great discovery for the world (wonder and joy!), it will provide financial security for Arthur and Dana and their mother, long-divorced from Arthur Sr. and recently widowed. Of course, Arthur sees through this scam a mile away and grills his father about how the play came to be in his possession and why he would keep such a thing hidden for so long. And yet. . . . either through wishful thinking or because he regrets their estranged relationship, Arthur comes to believe at least in the possibility of the play’s authenticity. With Dana’s help they pull the play apart, trying to poke holes in the language, looking for something to prove or disprove the play’s authorship. Shakespeare scholars are called in to voice their opinions and the physical play, the ink and paper, are subjected to intense forensic tests. There’s no way Arthur’s father, a petty criminal could have forged this. . . .
After his father’s death, Arthur has another change of heart and becomes convinced the play is a fraud. By this time, though, the publishing machine that he has set in motion is moving too fast, and Arthur can’t stop it without risking some fatalities, including his relationship with his sister.
The primary question in The Tragedy of Arthur isn’t about whether the play is real or a hoax, but whether it even matters. If a play brings people joy, does it matter who authored it? Well, from a financial perspective, the answer is most certainly yes. But what about from an artistic perspective? How does attributing a play to William Shakespeare make it any more or less enjoyable? Arthur Phillips the protagonist certainly has his own views on that matter, but Arthur Phillips the novelist refuses to spoon-feed us the answer. That my own perspective on the subject kept shifting as I read is in no small part responsible for my admiration for this novel.
On top of this funny, poignant, agonizing story of a man’s relationship with his father is the play itself. The last 100 pages of the novel is a tragedy about the legendary King Arthur, as written by “William Shakespeare.” I was feeling a bit morose about the novel’s ending (it is a tragedy after all), but the play lifted my spirits. Phillips crafts a work of such subtlety and humor in the guise of a tragedy that I want to read the play again and again. Read it simply as a play, allowing it to stand alone without the context of the “introduction” (the novel). Read it in the context of what we know about Arthur and his father. If you are a Shakespeare scholar, which I am not, read it with the lens of determining how true it is to Shakespeare’s time and voice. Finally, for simple fun, read it for the sometimes irritable comments you will find in the footnotes, as Phillips and his publisher disagree in print about whether certain names and turns of phrase prove the falsehood or authenticity of the play.
“What makes art authentic” is too large a question to settle within the 370 pages of this novel. In exploring it, though, Arthur Phillips has created a masterpiece.