eden's Reviews > The Tragedy of Arthur

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
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's review
Mar 20, 2015

it was ok
bookshelves: read-2011
Read from June 28 to July 04, 2011

Disclaimer: I won this from First Reads.

Well, I think this book's saving grace is the inclusion of the play itself because it turns out that Phillips doing a mediocre imitation of Shakespeare is much better than Phillips doing himself. I decided to treat this as I would a real WS play and, at the urging of the fake preface by Random House, I read the text of the play before reading the 250+ pages of "introduction". I'm glad I did. The play, which I'll refer to as The Tragedie to simplify things, is charming. While it is obviously not as inspired as Real Shakespeare, there are some parts that I really enjoyed. And it brings up interesting questions. I saw another reviewer here say that The Tragedie is indistinguishable from real Shakespeare, and it's true that it sounds like The Bard. The language and format are all there, and I suppose that it would be possible for someone who hasn't read much Shakespeare to mistake it for him. But there's a reason WS is so revered, and it's not because of the trappings. It's because of the resonant humanity of his characters -- something that's lacking in Arthur Phillips' The Tragedy of Arthur.

The bulk of the novel is written as a faux-introduction to the supposedly lost WS play. And the faux-introduction is written as a memoir of Arthur Phillips-the-character. It's all very meta.

I think the strength of the novel is in the questions it asks and the issues it raises. What is the worth of a life spent devoted to "creating wonder"? What's in a name -- is Shakespeare's work worthy of its author's reputation? What makes Shakespeare Shakespeare, if it's anything other than scholars slapping a name on it? Is truth inherently valuable? This is definitely an idea book, and I can't remember the last time I read fiction that was so thought-provoking. Which is good because so much fiction these days is brainless.

Unfortunately, this book's brain completely overwhelmed its heart, and I couldn't make myself feel anything about the characters except a vague annoyance. The worst part about this is that it's obvious who the sympathetic character is supposed to be -- Arthur Phillip's sister, Dana. She's obviously meant to be the voice of Love and Reason, but she seemed like such a non-entity to me until the very end where she turns into a total harpy. The book's villain is also obvious: the memoirist himself, Arthur Phillips, who is perhaps a worse version of his own horrible father. But like I said, I just couldn't care. He was annoying, but not because he was a total wretch, which might have been interesting. I guess it boils down to the fact that I didn't buy the humanity of the characters at any point, and least of all at the end, when it devolved into utter absurdity.

Which is why Arthur Phillips is no Bard. The glory of William Shakespeare is that he is able to perfectly marry humanity and philosophy, characters and ideas. His work is both cerebral and emotionally moving.

Oh, and let's not forget the beauty of his language because that's another area where Phillips comes off much worse. The writing in the introduction was surprising in its mediocrity. I'd not heard of Arthur Phillips before this, and I haven't read any of his other stuff, so I can't make comparisons. But man! I haven't been this disappointed in writing in a while. The only time I even noticed it, really, is when I hit a particularly bad bit, like "my jagged shards". I guess I expect more from literary fiction.

Anyway, like I said, I did enjoy the play itself, and I'll probably reread it in the future. But when I do, I will certainly be skipping the "introduction".

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Reading Progress

07/01/2011 page 200
52.0% "The more I read the more I wonder why I'm not just reading Shakespeare himself."
07/03/2011 page 280
73.0% "Like pulling teeth."
07/03/2011 page 280
73.0% "This guy actually uses the phrase "jagged shards" un-ironically. Is there anything more cliché than "jagged shards"? Ugh."

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