Monday, November 28

Considering Arthur Phillips' "The Tragedy of Arthur"

There is a relatively simple idea at the core of The Tragedy of Arthur: a forger discovers a lost play of William Shakespeare and gives it to his author son to publish, a son whose relationship with his father is strained at best and whose faith in the play's authenticity is understandably suspect. This simple idea is then wrapped in a massive conceit as the published work begins with an understated preface from the editors of Random House/Modern Library on the momentousness of the discovery, is followed by the highly personal and long introduction that veers into memoir territory and develops the aforementioned simple idea, and ends with the play itself and annotations on possible puns and archaic terms by both Mr. Philips and a Roland Verre, Shakespearean professor. The dedication to the conceit is pushed even further as William Shakespeare is given a little author biography along with Mr. Philips on the back page, their list of published works are together on the front inside pages and Dr. Verre's comments have their own copyright notice.

It's clever, I admit, and about as well done as one could hope. The many voices in this novel, those of Mr. Phillips and Shakespeare, Dr. Verre and the editors and lawyers of Random House/Modern Library, are distinct and reasonable facsimiles, at least to this one who is unfamiliar with the originals. One would think that by effort of this massive, multifaceted effort, it should be no problem at all to suspend disbelief that there is a fortieth Shakespeare play and this is it, but unfortunately, I could not. I find that fascinating. I have no trouble believing that Jason Statham can beatdown ten men at once or that the Joker could steal a firetruck and light it up at just the right spot to divert Harvey Dent's motorcade, but I cannot accept the authenticity of this new Shakespeare play, though a play is offered and it would appear that every single detail is accounted for. I wonder if perhaps it is just this ponderous detail to the fact otherwise that keeps my disbelief close and active. Would it not have been simpler to just be told that the play exists and to cut everything else out and not make the evidence perfect? Isn't that how real cons work, by glossing the details and allowing the mark to provide the answers? Were it just the introduction, I think I could believe it, but I can't the way it is. As it is, it becomes a game to find the errors. Those more familiar with Shakespeare's work than I will read the play close to find the false lines and words and be distracted from what should be a fairly enjoyable read.

It would be great if I could believe because the story's emotional arc is based on the late-arising conflict between Mr. Phillips and his twin sister as they battle over the play's authenticity in the face of their father's crimes and a single piece of contradictory evidence when every Shakespeare scholar and dating test suggests the manuscript is real. Without the suspension of disbelief, every character but for Mr. Philips appears a willing and active dupe and everything they do in relation to the play, which would appear reasonable if the document might be real, appears mean-spirited and cruel. This is especially damaging for Mr. Philips' twin sister. Early on he writes that she is perhaps the only character to come out of the story clean and good, but that is not my impression when she humiliates Mr. Philips and forces him to grovel, choose a Shakespearean punishment for himself and publish the play. That ending retroactively damaged everything that preceded it, leaving only a sour taste from what I had already enjoyed. The debates on the play's authenticity also distract from the much more interesting storyline where Mr. Phillips considers whether this play is some sort of twisted apology to him from his father who disappointed him throughout his life.

In the same way that Mr. Phillips cannot help but to construct this intricate artifice to justify the play's authenticity, he cannot help but to make this work a primer to contemporary thought on Shakespeare. When Mr. Phillips as a character is not musing on the politics of Scottish royalty in the plays or questioning whether the preponderance of surviving plays by Shakespeare against those of all other Elizabethan playwrights is the reason for his exalted place in the canon, other characters do it for him. A Scottish actor has his own ideas on the presence of bawdy jokes, and Dana covers the basics of anti-Stratfordian scholarship and offers her own idea of dual authorship by a Jew and earl. It's enough to make one appear pretty educated at their next cocktail party or water cooler or wherever it is that adults discuss Shakespeare.

For what it's worth, I found Arthur in a used book shop and bought it on a whim. I had heard mention of it somewhere on the Internet at some point and had thought the concept interesting, but the final decision was pushed by the fact that this edition was the advance reader's edition. In the place of blurbs of praise there are warnings that contained are uncorrected proofs and that any quotes should be compared against the sold edition before publication. I was kind of giddy at the discovery. I had always assumed early editions would have to be burned or something, but now I own something that only a select few could have, even if several editions more have been published since then.

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