“The Tragedy of Arthur” is a novel about a newly discovered Shakespeare play of the same name. The author is Arthur Phillips, which is also the name of both the book’s narrator and his father, a convicted forger who may be the secret author of the play.
It’s complicated, but it isn’t a tragedy. The modern-day story, at least, is closer to farce, though the laughter it elicits (and Phillips has a sense of humor that, like everything else about him as a writer, is on overdrive) is the kind that sticks in your throat.
The elder Arthur spends most of his time in prison; much of the plot hinges on the son’s fury and mortification at his father’s crimes and his simultaneous tortured need for his father’s love.
The text of the novel forms a 256-page introduction (it’s titled “Introduction”) to the text of the play, and Phillips has actually gone to the trouble of writing a five-act history play in the style of early Shakespeare. It comes with scholarly apparatus (synopsis, notes) and is replete with the kind of linguistic difficulties familiar to readers of Renaissance poetry:
“More dread have I of April rain and wind / Than of that flea-bit tench, that ape, that patch, / The jordan-faced and stinking Pictish scroyle.”
The novel rings (and rings and rings) with echoes of the play, of the Shakespeare canon and of Shakespeare’s life. As a feat of literary prestidigitation, its obvious point of reference is Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire,” a virtuoso entertainment that begins with a long poem of the same name written in the style of Robert Frost, followed by several hundred pages of critical exegesis that are actually a novel in disguise.
But the “Introduction” to “The Tragedy of Arthur” never feels anything like a real introduction, and asking readers to plow through five long acts of ersatz Shakespeare is a lot more presumptuous that asking them to digest 500 lines of ersatz Frost.
I doubt that many of the novel’s readers will make it all the way through the play, nor can I say I really enjoyed the slog myself. (It would have helped if it were funny.)
You can’t fail to be a little awed -- and yet every time I put the novel down I found it hard to pick back up. Why? For one thing, Phillips gets into emotional territory between parents and children that will cause anyone who didn’t grow up an orphan to flinch. That it made me so queasy may be a tribute to the author’s dexterity, but still.
Not Very Tragic
It might also have helped a novel that’s a fantasia on Shakespearean themes to be more Shakespearean. Arthur Phillips the narrator is neither tragic nor heroic; he has none of the Shakespearean darkness or depth. Instead he’s a fairly crummy representative of ordinary humanity who behaves in a nauseatingly selfish and unforgivable way toward the twin sister he adores.
Forgiveness is the great Shakespearean theme. When the malefactors in “Measure for Measure” or “The Tempest” are forgiven, it’s not because they deserve it -- which is the point. Nobody deserves it.
Betrayal is a type of behavior Shakespeare recognized as typical of the human condition, and he bestows forgiveness as a kind of unearned grace. The idea of actually earning it, which is central to “The Tragedy of Arthur” -- that belongs to a different playwright, a different universe.
“The Tragedy of Arthur” is published by Random House (368 pages, $26). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)