Conjuring Shakespeare in wily, witty ‘Tragedy’

By Carlo Wolff
April 25, 2011

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Arthur Phillips’s new novel is such a deal. Not only does the reader get an engrossing family saga, Phillips caps it with “The Tragedy of Arthur,’’ a “lost’’ play by William Shakespeare. These dramas reflect off one another and combine in an ambitious, complicated book that examines the tensions between art and life, family ties and ruthless self-interest.

The main character of this post-modern fable is a writer whose name just happens to be Arthur Phillips — which also happens to be the name of the protagonist’s father. The fictional Arthur, the younger, finds himself torn between loyalty toward his twin sister, Dana, and desire for her lover, Petra. Our plucky writer is further shredded by ambivalence toward his selfish, unreliable dad.

If you think you’ve entered a hall of mirrors, you’re right. Fortunately, it’s great fun, far more akin to the author’s second novel, a marvelously entertaining 2004 hoax fantasy called “The Egyptologist,’’ than to “The Song Is You,’’ a strained 2009 book that is by far his weakest.

What you could call the back story pits the author against his father, a forger of painting and literature. The elder Arthur is not to be trusted, a bad dad who has spent most of his life in prison. But one day Arthur pere hands Dana a 1904 edition of “The Tragedy of Arthur,’’ ostensibly by William Shakespeare, setting Dana and Arthur, the younger, to wonder and argue for years about the authenticity of the play as they can find no evidence that it was actually penned by the master. When the elder is on his last legs, he gives Arthur what appears to be the original quarto, its provenance questionable but its commercial potential enormous. Is this the real deal or the old man’s master scam? Arthur eventually opts to have the manuscript published, but he also decides to write an introduction, exploring both the authenticity of the work as well as the tangled workings of his own dysfunctional family.

For instance, we learn that, among many family disagreements, Arthur and his sister and father do not even see eye to eye about the value of Shakespeare’s work. Dana, an actress, loves the playwright, as does the father, leaving Arthur the odd man out. Our multidimensional, conflicted hero cannot hide his disdain for the Bard.

“If it didn’t have his name on it, half his work would be booed off the stage, dismissed by critics as stumbling, run out of print. Instead, we say it’s Shakespeare; he must be doing something profound that we don’t appreciate. Compare: a blogger on ‘The Egyptologist’: Phillips, clumsy as a newborn calf, totters through the opening scenes, farting exposition as the urge touches him.’’

This paragraph encapsulates Phillips’s central and immodest question: Who’s the better author, Will or Art (or Will and the real Art)? It also gives Arthur, the younger, a chance to rebuff his critics as well as to vent over the perceived injustice over his relative lack of success.

In the second half of the book, Phillips gives us the text of the lost play, a tragedy involving a sixth-century power struggle between Arthur, prince of Wales and later king of Britain, and Mordred, son of the king of Pictland, now part of Scotland. The drama is fascinating but no more so than the footnotes and addenda in which Arthur attempts to debunk the play while a Shakespeare expert argues for its authenticity.

Toward the end of the play, as Arthur battles Picts and Scots and grapples with his restive subjects, he muses on mortality:

“What man knows aught of his own chronicle?

“Or kens what ill tomorrow hides for him?’’

What happens to the legendary king is a foregone conclusion. “The Tragedy of Arthur’’ is likely to bring the real Arthur Phillips acclaim for cooling his fevered imagination with sparkling and imaginative prose. Shakespeare would applaud a man who does him so proud. Readers, too, may well praise Phillips for crafting so wily and witty an excursion into the ties that bind fiction and life.

Carlo Wolff, a freelance writer from Cleveland, can be reached at


Random House, 368 pp., $26