The Work: The Tragedy of Arthur, a Novel, by Arthur Phillips
Part One: The Introductory “Novel”
4 of 5 Stars: Strongly Recommended.
“You will tell the truth. You will write a little non-fiction for once in your life, and you will learn its lessons in public, where everyone can see you and judge you… Because with a Shakespeare play attached, everyone is going to read it.”
Arthur Phillips’ sister, Dana, gave him this Love’s Labour’s Lost inspired penance for his adulterous affair with and impregnation of her girlfriend.
The Tragedy of Arthur contains two tragedies. One, the play that will cause controversy, concerns King Arthur as described by Raphael Holinshed, and is possibly written by William Shakespeare. The other, the introduction novel, concerns the tragedies in the life of Arthur Phillips. Do not be confused by the word “novel,” the introduction is 256 pages of non-fiction.
Mr. Phillips did not want to write this novel, but his understandably miffed sister gave him an ultimatum. He would follow her previously stated demand while not attempting to contact his family for a year, or he would lose them forever. Arthur’s novel outlines his life, his writing, his fleshy mistakes and his connection to the quarto that will cause great discussion in decades to come.
Arthur Phillips’ father, also named Arthur, was a counterfeiter and art forger with a great passion for Shakespeare. Through most of young Arthur’s life, his father was incarcerated for his various crimes. Months before his father’s freedom, Arthur opened his father’s safe deposit box and found what appeared to be a 1597 quarto printing of THE MOST EXCELLENT AND TRAGICAL HISTORIE OF ARTHUR, King of Britain, by W. Shakespeare. Amazingly, there is no record of this play in the Stationer’s Register, and, so far, no one has yet been able to find evidence from the sixteenth century that this play existed.
After Random House agreed to publish this potentially great find, the forgery experts, the scholars, actors and directors descended to add their opinions as to the play’s authenticity. No scientific evidence of forgery has yet been found, the “preponderance” of scholars claim the quarto is genuine, and Mr. Phillips believed in the play until his father died and left new evidence.
Arthur found a suspect notecard in his father’s possessions. On it is a scanned line of verse that is nearly identical to a line in Act III of the play in question. Mr. Phillips is convinced this card was a draft of an elaborate forgery. Throughout the introduction and in his annotation, Arthur asserts that his father wrote this play for him, and managed to create a fraud that has befuddled the so-called “experts.”
Arthur Phillips has everything to lose, and much to gain. He disgorges his soul on to the page so that we can behold him with all his scars. His family life has been hellish, though much of it has been self-inflicted. The main point of the introduction is to tell the truth, and I believe he tells the truth as he sees it.
I am no man’s father confessor, and my first reaction to “Because with a Shakespeare play attached, everyone is going to read it,” was pure revulsion. At first, this story seems to have no place next to a Shakespeare play, but I now see the strange irony. Phillips’ story is worthy of Shakespeare, it has all the twists, turns, and eloquently rendered ugliness.
I remind all readers that it is not our place to judge Arthur Phillips. What he claims to have done may disturb, but his penance, to expose himself to the judgment of the world, is more than most would dream. Reading his life might cause us to feel better for our own presence of mind, but that is a hollow happiness. Arthur has invited the world to flay him alive. For once, let us put down the whip.
Dana, please forgive your brother. Forgiveness is not bestowed from worthiness, but from compassion.
Part Two: The play itself, and its authenticity, coming soon.