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Review: The Tragedy of Arthur, Part Two

By March 2, 2011 3 Comments

Part Two of The Tragedy of Arthur, by William Shakespeare

Random House

Tentative On Sale Date: April 19th, 2011

$26

Five of Five Stars- Come running, this work is seminal!

Section One- The Play In Question:

Be advised, this is no Sword in the Stone, no Excalibur wielding knight in shining armor, and Lancelot makes no appearance.  Arthur is based on Holinshed’s Chronicle, which presents the legendary king as one lascivious bastard (I’m not just being facetious, his father, Uther, raped Arthur’s married mother).  Holinshed’s work, and this Arthur, casts the boy-king in easily recognizable and Shakespearean tones.

Arthur has a familiar origin in that he reminds this reviewer of the bastard Faulconbridge in King John, as well as many cultural heroes documented in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.  We are presented with a young man who does not know his father, raised by a wise old man and with a looming fate rapidly descending upon him.  What is shocking to anyone even tangentially aware of Mallory’s Arthur, is what the young king does with all his potential.

When he inherits the throne, Arthur proves similar to Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Marlowe’s Edward II in that his personal weakness causes the body politic to degrade.  Rival kings of Scotland and Pictland war nearly continuously with our libidinous hero, and the main antagonist, Mordred, desperately hopes to usurp Arthur’s throne.

Of particular note are a few scenes that occur far from the war or court, in King Arthur’s dog stalls.  There two servants recall the old Arthur versus the new.  These scenes border on questioning the authority of kings, and, in this reviewer’s opinion, may have led to the suppression of this text.

Section Two:  Did William Shakespeare write this play?

Now for the question of the decade- is this a new Shakespeare play?  I believe in the scientific method, and I will apply that as well as the great deductive reasoning statement of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Consider the possibility that the elder Arthur Phillips did invent and forge this play.  If so, this is a convincing forgery, but there are too many reasons to reject this scenario pending more evidence.  First, Mr. Phillips, Sr. was a convicted counterfeiter and fraud.  The mere fact that he was caught and spent most of his life in jail would lead to the presumption that he was not a very good counterfeiter or fraud.  While there are some incidental similarities between the younger Arthur Phillips’ life and Arthur, these seem to be mere coincidence.  Art does have the tendency to imitate life, and many of us find strong parallels to our lives in many artists’ works.  While Mr. Phillips, Sr. might have been a secretly astounding fraud, the evidence at hand during the writing of this review leads me to say it is highly unlikely that the play was written by him.

The quarto printing, supposedly stolen by the elder Mr. Phillips from an English gentleman’s manor home, has been dated to the late sixteenth century.  If the reports from the book are to be believed, Early Modern printing experts also believe that this play was indeed printed by the ascribed printer.  Presuming these experts are worthy of that title, I accept the proposition that this play was written in the latter half of the 16thcentury.

But did Shakespeare write this play?  The only evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship is that his name appears on the title page of the 1597 Quarto.  This work was not included in the First, Second or Third Folios; is not in the Stationer’s Register and, as far as has been discovered, has not been mentioned in any of the documentary evidence from Shakespeare’s lifetime.  The same sources that verify the authenticity of the plays in the First Folio are silent on the question of Arthur.  The reasons that the plays of the Folios (minus the so-called Apocrypha) are accepted as canon are that Shakespeare’s friends gathered his plays together for printing.  Since they knew and worked with the man, it is logical to presume that they also knew what he did and did not write.

There are textual similarities between Shakespeare’s early writing and the composition of Arthur, a strict adherence to iambic pentameter, blank verse, and the occasional prosaic scene.  Text notes by Arthur Phillips and Professor Roland Verre shed much light on similarities between the author’s writing style and that of William Shakespeare.

But that is it: no other evidence exists.

Who wrote this play?  The answer is that, barring new evidence, we do not and cannot know.  There is not enough evidence to narrow the author of this play down to just one Early Modern English playwright.  I humbly suggest to my counterparts and scholars the world over to take these words to heart and embrace logic in this controversy.  No one knows if Shakespeare wrote this play, but it is a possibility.

Here is what I can say with a great deal of certainty:  In or around 1597, someone printed a Quarto of an Early Modern verse play whose title page reads:

“The MOST TRAGICAL HISTORIE OF ARTHUR, King of Britain.

As it hath beene diurse times plaide by the right

Honourable The Lord Chamberlain His Seruants.

Newly corrected and augmented

By W. Shakespere.

LONDON

Imprinted by W.W. for Cutbert Burby.  1597”

Let me be clear.  This play may have been written by William Shakespeare, but there is no definitive evidence that it was.

I also have the uncomfortable suspicion that this play will become the Shakespearean Shroud of Turin…  People will ask if you “believe” in the Shroud, forgetting that belief is not proof and that belief concerns faith, not fact.  I fear that, like the other authorship debates, this play will divide people into “believers” and “non-believers”, distracting them from studying and producing a play about which we have so many questions and too few answers.

The greatest impression this play has made on me is that I want to direct, act in, study, and debate this work.  As a theatre professional, there is no higher honor, whether the piece was written by William Shakespeare, Arthur Phillips, Sr., or anyone else.

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Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Arthur says:

    I would only make one small correction to an otherwise excellent essay. The name on the title page is spelled “Shakespere” without the final “a”. I don’t think that changes anyone’s argument either way, but I do think it should be noted.

    Thank you for your very kind essays, Francis.

    Arthur Phillips

    • FrancisRTMBoyle FrancisRTMBoyle says:

      Thank you for your note, I have made the revision so that the title page is now correct to the original.

  • esperatus says:

    I wanted to love this novel. It is not mindless however i found it enormously unsatisfying. Phillips self detraction “Novelist isn’t much better than forger” allows him to have fictional characters champion him (Phillips) creating a con of modesty, concern for his readership, society, in general someone above contempt.
    An example his father’s illegal activity is counterfeiting lottery tickets. Was it a victimless crime? The odds of winning are so small isn’t what is being purchased really the hope of winning? Doesn’t the counterfeit ticket give as much hope as any? I believe there is a difference. There are real consequences inherent in the intentional dissemination of misinformation particularly when the motive is selfish. The con artist mines trust and leaves a bleak landscape of cynicism. This novel is (not surprisingly) devoid of soul and has no more worth than any other counterfeit. I can’t get my time back but suggest others seriously consider whether they want to invest their resources into this “work”.

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