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The Tragedy of Arthur

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The Tragedy of Arthur is an emotional and elaborately constructed tour de force from bestselling and critically acclaimed novelist Arthur Phillips, “one of the best writers in America” (The Washington Post).

Its doomed hero is Arthur Phillips, a young man struggling with a larger-than-life father, a con artist who works wonders of deception but is a most unreliable parent. Arthur is raised in an enchanted world of smoke and mirrors where the only unshifting truth is his father’s and his beloved twin sister’s deep and abiding love for the works of William Shakespeare—a love so pervasive that Arthur becomes a writer in a misguided bid for their approval and affection.

Years later, Arthur’s father, imprisoned for decades and nearing the end of his life, shares with Arthur a treasure he’s kept secret for half a century: a previously unknown play by Shakespeare, titled The Tragedy of Arthur. But Arthur and his sister also inherit their father’s mission: to see the play published and acknowledged as the Bard’s last great gift to humanity. . . .

Unless it’s their father’s last great con.

By turns hilarious and haunting, this virtuosic novel—which includes Shakespeare’s (?) lost King Arthur play in its five-act entirety—captures the very essence of romantic and familial love and betrayal. The Tragedy of Arthur explores the tension between storytelling and truth-telling, the thirst for originality in all our lives, and the act of literary mythmaking, both now and four centuries ago, as the two Arthurs—Arthur the novelist and Arthur the ancient king—play out their individual but strangely intertwined fates.

New York Times Notable Book • A New Yorker Reviewers’ Favorite of the Year • A Wall Street Journal Best Novel of the Year • A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year • A Chicago Tribune Favorite Book of the Year • A Library Journal Top Ten Book of the Year • A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year • One of Salon’s five best novels of the year

368 pages, Hardcover

First published April 19, 2011

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Arthur Phillips

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 535 reviews
Profile Image for Jill.
1,149 reviews1,588 followers
April 8, 2011
The very first thing I did after finishing The Tragedy of Author - Arthur Phillips's ingenious faux-memoir - was to Google to see what was true and what wasn't...only to find that much of Phillips's traceable past has been erased.

Did he really have a gay twin sister named Dana, a scam artist father who spent his adult life in prison, a Czech wife and twin sons of his own? Methinks not. What I do know is that Arthur Phillips shares his birthday with the Bard himself, that he was born in Minnesota, and that he is indeed a writer to be watched very carefully. Because what he's accomplished in this novel - er, memoir - is sheer genius.

Arthur Phillips - the character - is an unreliable narrator if there ever was one, and points it out in various excerpts. Right from the start when he says, "I have never much liked Shakespeare," we feel a little off-center. The book is, after all about the ultimate Shakespeare scam: his neer-do-well father, at the end of his life, shares with Arthur a previously unknown play by Shakespeare titled The Tragedy of Arthur and entices him to use his Random House connections to get the play published.

To say his connection with his father is complicated is an understatement. Arthur Phillips, memoirist, reflects, "His life was now beyond my comprehension and much of my sympathy - even if I had been a devoted visitor, a loving son, a concerned participant in his life. I was none of those." Now he wonders: did his father perform the ultimate con? If so, how did he pull it off? And how do the two Arthurs - Arthur the ancient king portrayed in the "lost" play and Arthur the memoirist - intertwine their fates?

It's a tricky project and Arthur Phillips - the novelist - is obviously having great fun with it. At one point, he urges readers to, "Go Google the van Meergeen Vermeers...Read James Frey's memoir now...We blink and look around, rubbing the fairy dust from our eyes, wonder whether we might have dreamt it all. Once you know it isn't Shakespeare, none of it sounds like Shakespeare. How could it." But somehow, it does.

The play is reproduced in its entirety in the second part and indeed, it reads like Shakespeare (I read all of his major plays in grad school and have seen many of them performed). It's absolutely brazen that Arthur Phillips could have mimicked Shakespeare so successfully and with seeming authenticity.

So in the end, the theme comes down to identity. As Phillips the memoirist writes, "So much of Shakespeare is about being at a loss for identity being lost somewhere without the self-defining security of home and security, lost in a shipwreck, confused with a long-lost twin, stripped of familiar power, taken for a thief, taken for the opposite gender, taken fora pauper, believeing oneself an orphan."

And, as Phillips the novelist knows, it's also a trick for perspective. The play, the novel, the memoir, the scam can equally be said to be "about a man born in Stratford in 1565 - maybe on April 22 or 24, by the way -- or about an apocryphal boy king in Dark Ages England or about my father or his idea of me or my grandfather or Dana in armor or or or." Just as Shakespeare may or may not have written his plays - according to some anti-Bards - so might this new one be a fakery, written by Arthur's fictional father. There is layer steeped upon layer steeped upon layer in this book. It's audacious and it's brilliant. Arthur Phillips convincingly shows us just how easy it is to reinvent a play, a history, or ourselves with just a few sweeps of a pen.
Profile Image for Jason Furman.
1,159 reviews746 followers
October 31, 2011
Arthur Phillips is our most reliable creator of unreliable narrators. And in the case of this book, it is "Arthur Phillips" himself who narrates. That is the "Arthur Phillips" who is the author of Prague, The Egyptologist, Angelica, The Song Is You, as well as the discoverer of what may be a newly discovered Shakespeare play: The Tragedy of Arthur.

The book begins with a short preface from "Random House", followed by an Introduction to the newly discovered play by "Arthur Phillips," and then the "Shakespeare" play itself, complete with the standard apparatus of footnotes one expects with Shakespeare. The Introduction is 250 pages long and is essentially a self-contained memoir of how Phillips came to get the Shakespeare manuscript from his father, a genial forger with a penchant for creating wonders, why he initially thought it was genuine and brought it to Random House, and how he eventually came to doubt its legitimacy -- despite mounting and overwhelming evidence from a wide range of experts that the manuscript was genuine.

The Introduction is one part fabulous invention, one part a hilarious riff on Shakespeare studies and the claim that Shakespeare did not write his works, one part a serious discussion of the relationship of art and authorship, and one part a deeply affecting story of a family and its growth. Although it is all not wrapped up nearly as elegantly as The Egyptologist or The Song is You, the individual parts are superior.

Like Pale Fire, but in reverse order, The Tragedy of Arthur includes the entire, uninterrupted play that is the subject of the bulk of the book. Although the novel itself falls short of Pale Fire (which says little), the "original document" itself is much a much more ambitious enterprise: what is meant to be or not to be, so to speak, a complete five act Shakespeare play about the King Arthur. Unlike the poem that prefaces Pale Fire, the play itself is readable and worth reading, a pastiche of the Shakespeare histories, reaching close to the level of the worst of them. The sometimes dueling footnotes between "Arthur Phillips" and the Random House editors are not to be missed.

Overall, another completely original work from Arthur Phillips,
Profile Image for Daniel.
45 reviews1 follower
June 12, 2012
The best book I've read this year, and well worth a review: I shall write one when this damn essay is finished. In the meantime, read this book.

*Time Passes*

I found The Tragedy of Arthur in the ‘classics’ section of my local bookshop. This, possibly, is a bit presumptuous. Arthur is a play by William Shakespeare that may not have been written by William Shakespeare. All the tests, all the critics, all the academics say that this lost work, now found, is a miracle. They attest that something so obviously old (even down to the dyes in the ink used on the quarto), so obviously written (at least most of it) in the Bard’s inimitable style, and so obviously un-fakeable has to be legitimate. Arthur Phillips, the discoverer of the play, disagrees.

The Tragedy of Arthur runs for five acts, but is dwarfed by Phillips’ contractually obliged introduction. Read the play first, as the preface suggests, and you’ll start to notice something is not quite right. There are two men leaving footnotes, and they seem to be arguing consistently through them. Curious. The play is enjoyable, and reads like what I’ve read of Shakespeare (about five or six plays, depending on if you count the ones you do at school, and most of the sonnets). It’s a rollicking history that ends in tragedy, full of speeches and sex and comedy: Shakespeare’s kind of thing. There’s a flawed king, loyal friends, treachery and war and not a nice word to say about Scotland. Once you’ve read the play, then you can read the introduction (which is a memoir more than anything else). Phillips is a reluctant memoirist, and is only writing the thing so Random House can’t ruin his life with highly paid and highly efficient lawyers: letters and correspondence placed through the text show the pressure that Phillips was under.

Arthur Phillips never really liked Shakespeare. His father and his twin sister, Dana, would fawn over the Bard, whilst he felt left out and unloved. His relationship with his sister was normally porous – they were semi-permeable in the way that some twins are – but when it came to Shakespeare, he just didn’t get it. Their family is near idyllic for six or seven years until Phillips’ father is imprisoned for various crimes, all relating to forgery. He is in and out of prison for most of the rest of his life, causing Arthur and his sister torment, their mother to take a new husband, and strange psychological strands to wrap themselves through Arthur and Dana and Arthur Snr. If you want to know why Arthur Jnr. ends up writing the introduction, read the book: it’s worth it.

The Tragedy of Arthur is about a lot of things: authenticity, wonder, Shakespeare, family, loyalty, deception, Art, secrets, doubt… Phillips is an arrogant (intentionally?) writer who tackles big themes. He judges Jonson’s “Sweet Swan of Avon” as nothing more than a jobbing writer who got lucky. There’s a truth in what he says about Shakespeare: he’s near impossible to criticise, and when his plays are questioned, the questioner is shown not to have understood them properly. I like this view of Shakespeare. I love his plays and the stories, but it’s nice to see him as a writer and not some untouchable, unobtainable “star of poets”. The man was a man after all.

I loved the way I read this book, with pencil in hand and always asking questions. You investigate as you read, you begin to believe and you know it’s fake, you ask and answer and wonder. If Shakespeare hadn’t written the play that lay in a library for five hundred years, unnoticed and forgotten, would you still think it was beautiful? If the play had been placed in a bank vault in the twentieth century by a master-forger, would you still enjoy the writing? When does art stop being art? When does it become Art? This is a book that makes you question your own ways of creating, as well as your own place in the whole pantheon of writers. It is a book about the illusion and authenticity of creation. It’s an idea that lives on secrets and deception, and never quite knowing the ones you love. It’s about trying, so, so hard, to know the ones you love. There’s a delicious whiff of old books and old times, and a strange feeling of insecurity: even if you know you’re being lied to, you never quite know. It’s a defence of magic: “We have so many facts, and with them we can cut down anything.” (16) It’s about trying to be unique: “Well, if I can be him, then I’m unique, too, just like him, unlike these seven billion walking duplicates.” (243) It’s about loving books, and living books, and the weird boundaries between art and life and art and truth.

I feel differently about Shakespeare, and it is a good different. I feel differently about art, and that too is good. I feel better for having read and loved this book, and The Tragedy of Arthur will stay in my heart and in my head for a long time. Arthur Phillips managed to convince the people who make the stickers at Dymocks that this is all real, and he may even convince you. I hope he does, at least for a little bit. Believing in things can be fun, and if the illusion breaks or fails, then you still have this wonderful, crazy-imagined novel to tell you how it all works, and why you have come to think the way you do.

Here’s some cool internet things to check out:

http://vimeo.com/17116790

http://www.arthurphillips.info/HighRe...

http://www.arthurphillips.info/MediaR...
Profile Image for Keith.
540 reviews54 followers
March 31, 2012
The Tragedy of Arthur is a title with a double meaning. In one sense it refers to a lost Shakespearean play of that name and in the other it refers to the narrator of the tale, someone who may or may not be the novelist Arthur Phillips. Like the real Arthur Phillips, the fictional Arthur Phillips grew up in Minnesota, has lived in Prague, has written a novel named after that city. The fictional Arthur has a father was was a con man possessed of wild and grandiose schemes who spends much of his life in prison. Fictional Arthur has a gifted twin sister who loves her father and Shakespeare in equal measure. Phillips is apparently a novelist whose narrators are generally unreliable. Having only read his Egyptologist I was unaware of this but the narrative structure is such that I am sure many readers have interrupted their reading of the novel to quietly google the author's biography. I did and so far am none the wiser.

The lost play which ends up in fictional Arthur's hands is summarized and quoted throughout the novel; however, not content with this feat of imagination the real Arthur Phillips has written and appended to the book a complete play called The Tragedy of Arthur. Fictional Arthur's tempestuous relationship with his father is the leit-motif here and much of that anger and frustration is also directed at Shakespeare. At a rehearsal for Hamlet in which Arthur's sister is playing Ophelia he begins ranting on the cult of Shakespeare:

"That was perfect. Shakespeare was the greatest creator of Rorschach tests in history. That’s why we keep going back to him for the ten billionth production of this lame play. Look, look: you have a weak spot where Will’s not thinking very clearly, and the character rambles on, and Will sticks in a joke that he likes about flowers that look like wieners. It plainly doesn’t belong there. Any editor would cut it. It breaks the rhythm and the logic of the scene. And your sweet old Gertrude noticed it and rightly points out the weak spot. Anybody else, we’d say, ‘Whoops. Not buying it, Will.’ If I wrote it, they’d send me home to rework it. Instead, what do you all do? You all talk it out until you make it make sense for him. He wrote it, so it must be right. You six very intelligent people form a committee to offer him your help, and when you’ve done the best you can, consulting old books of other would-be helpers, when you actually come up with some very clever solutions, you marvel at him for composing such a subtle moment.

A little later this leads to a more extreme opinion:

"A biographer asks, 'What would my subject likely have done, even if I have no record of it?' . . . . This leads to that paranoid and extreme Shakespeare-philic/Shakespeare-phobic idea that there is nothing we can do or think that some actor from Warwickshire didn’t plan for us between 1589 and 1613."

The novelist in the novel also offers up some choice words on the whole publishing racket. Here's one of my favorites:

". . . a famously vicious and dismissive New York newspaper book reviewer—whom I made the career-bashing mistake of kissing and feeling up at a party at Yale decades earlier and then never calling—faulted my last novel for 'a curious absence of empathy.')"

This is a novel of great imagination that also displays a keen intellect in respect to Shakespeare. Unreliable of not, Phillips knows, as Shakespeare taught us "truths would be tales, Where now half tales be truths."
Profile Image for Beesley.
136 reviews
October 28, 2011
Good book, well written, enjoyable, and thought provoking. Shakespeare pervades this book, so it is probably mostly of interest to those who like Shakespeare or are at least interested in Shakespeare.

There were some things about this book I did not like: 1) I found the first chunk of it very rough going because I hated the narrator and thought he was whiney. In fact, the narrator uses that word, "whine," more than once about himself, possibly three times or more. Telling. Around the time the narrator went to college, things picked up and I became more interested and less annoyed. 2) The narrator spent a lot of time showing us instead of tellng us, especially showing off his knowledge of Shakespeare. In addition to repeatedly presenting situations easily recognizable as "Shakespearean," the narrator then took the additional step of identifying the specific play that the where a similar situation ensued. This had the effect of the narrator and the writer showing off in their letters, striving to continually be the smartest guys at the cocktail party. I would have enjoyed thinking about this on my own. 3) ***POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT - POSSIBLY NOT SO MUCH, BUT IN AN EXCESS OF CAUTION, SKIP THIS IF YOU REALLY HATE SPOILERS***The convicted forger father insists that the narrator concoct a story about how the manuscript at the center of the tale was found, on the grounds that if anyone knew it came from the hands of a convicted forger, no one would take the manuscript. In this age of instant information about anyone, any idiot could have connected the narrator to his forger father pretty fast. Anyone wanting to seriously test the manuscript's origins could have figured this out in no time. This was a completely implausible plot point that didn't hold up. I know, I know, this book is a story about stories, an elaborate ruse about elaborate ruses, but since the writer went to great lengths to make other elements of the plot seemingly plausible, I was disappointed by this. 4) What happened to the narrator at the end of the book seemed way out of proportion to his purported misdeeds. The characters who punished him showed their own unspeakable moral shabbiness - another disappointment because they were otherwise interesting and funny characters. Made me appreciate Shakespeare's skill in this area all the more. When somebody is punished in Shakespeare, there is no question about proportion.
Profile Image for Victor Carson.
467 reviews11 followers
February 9, 2012
I see that I am in the small minority of readers who dislikes this novel. I also admit that I did not read the play itself after suffering through the author's Introduction. The pace of the book is very slow, endlessly repetitive, and self-absorbed, like the fictional author who shares his name with the actual author of this book. The idea of writing a fictional memoir, using your own name and some real facts about your own life is bizarre, bordering on ridiculous. No publisher would have put up with the fictional shenanigans that Arthur Phillips imagines, even if a previously unknown work by Shakespeare were at stake. The fictional author's perpetual anger at his father is understandable but repeated so often as to be insufferable. Get over it! The irresponsible, criminal, forger father is much more lovable than his author son.

I am sorry that I did not follow one reader's suggestion to read the fictional play at the end of the book before reading the "Introduction" that precedes and contradicts it. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the play and could have skimmed the author's "clever" story. The only clever event in the Introduction happens at the very end, when his lesbian sister and her partner maneuver Arthur into forming a real family with the two of them, so to speak. The author deserved to be used in this way.
Profile Image for Pamela.
176 reviews9 followers
May 28, 2013
When I’ve described this novel to friends, it’s always sounded interesting. That’s strange because I actually struggled to finish it, and only did so out of a sense of duty and respect to the person who enthusiastically bestowed it on me. It’s another in that line of novels that masquerades as a memoir of the protagonist who shares the same name as the author - Arthur Phillips. The memoirist Arthur Philips has a twin sister Dana whom he claims to love above all others despite the fact that he can easily justify his profound betrayals of her. Their father is a con artist/forger who spends most of his life in jail. When he’s not in jail he lavishes his affection Dana and instills in her his own adoration of William Shakespeare. Arthur is left out of this shared interest, as well his father’s love (he thinks), and in turn develops a profound disdain for the Bard.

That’s all I’m going to tell you because you might actually want to read this New York Times Notable Book and I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. But I can’t help mentioning that the long lost now newly discovered play, The Tragedy of Arthur, by William Shakespeare is published herein and is certifiably crappy.
Profile Image for switterbug (Betsey).
814 reviews744 followers
March 31, 2011
You don't have to be a Shakespeare scholar to feast on this book. To wit, whether you love, like, devour, admire, or even scorn Shakespeare, you can easily negotiate your way through this accessible "problem play" and trundle along with page-turning merriment. By the final pages of this faux memoir/novel/play, you will have also amassed a literate and impressive font of Bardology.

You'll acquaint with the big hits and the B side of the Bard. You'll learn facts about his peerage, his years, the sources, printing houses, publishers, private life, naysayers, comedies, tragedies, a comedy of errors and a troupe of "King's Men." Phillips is a genius at conditioning the reader and searing Will into your brain. There is much ado about a lot of Willie's works in there, implanted carefully and wound into the occasionally (purposely?) overweening story. So let us assay our plot.

Arthur Phillips is given an ostensible Shakespeare quarto from his father, a Shakespeare scholar and recidivist con man, who spent most of his adult years incarcerated. The play is called "The Tragedy of Arthur," and dad wants Arthur to be his literary executor and family goodwill ambassador, overseeing its publishing and ensuring that the family prospers from the millions of dollars sure to come. First it has to be authenticated by experts in the field via stylometry (linguistic style) of verse, metrical characteristics, vocabulary, paper, and other and thorough attributes.

In the meantime, Arthur Phillips is busy being naughty and fortune's fool, but not the way you may think at this glance. Arthur has to govern his way into and beyond the breach of his father. His sister, Dana, is the true Shakespearean scholar, now an actress in the controversial and finally partially Bard-attributed, "The Two Noble Kinsmen." And has Dana finally found true love?

What is true in this memoir? Arthur Phillips is...Arthur Phillips. But what's in a name? He shares a birthday with Shakespeare, that is true. But does he have a gay twin sister born April 22nd (my birthday)? Is he really Jewish? That and other things--he does have a rather lean and hungry look--are for the reader to determine. (Shakespeare fathered twins.) And, at the end of the novel/memoir, the play's the thing, and The Tragedy of Arthur is not only there, but well explained and annotated.

Something interesting about the whole insane Shakespeare phenomenon: one-sixth of all the Elizabethan plays that survive now are his. But, in his day, he was just a middling playwright, in-between a slew of others who we don't even read any more. Was this a superb publicity stunt by Ben Johnson, who wrote a fawning blurb, and invented modern literary publicity as we know it today? Perhaps we have inflated Will beyond proportion. Whether he deserves this praise or whether this is a matter of the public wanting a literary god and hero is something else to ponder.

"But this is a trick of perspective, a rolling boulder of PR, a general cowardliness in us, a desire for heroes and simple answers. Laziness: it's easier to think one guy had it all." Phillips may have had his tongue firmly in his cheek, but he isn't above a little controversy, a little hoist with his own petard.

This is a book about family--about loyalty, betrayal, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, twins, and of course--love. From this story, I learned something else about Arthur Phillips' character, Julian Donahue, in one of my favorite books, The Song Is You. He may have been another homage to Shakespeare, who mourned the death of his son, Hamnet.

There are a trough of pellucid Shakespeare lines that would reflect the theme and story of this book. I could include them here, but... Let every eye negotiate for itself.
Profile Image for Simon.
184 reviews4 followers
May 27, 2011
When I reviewed Arthur Phillips's last novel The Song Is You, I faulted Phillips for filtering the central relationship (a love affair that never quite happens) through a series of moments that felt a little more sentimentalized than actually lived. In the new The Tragedy of Arthur Phillips takes a sharp left turn into the personal by way of metafiction. What we are reading is supposedly Phillips's introduction to the first publication of a newly discovered Shakespeare play about King Arthur. The "introduction" is over 250 pages long and reveals not one but two Arthurs, the author and his freewheeling con man of a father. The early chapters are a picaresque memoir that involves Arthur being an unwitting accomplice to some of his father's doings. It's the senior Phillips who brings the play to light and manages to overcome the suspicions of his son and Shakespeare-loving daughter as to its authenticity. The rest of the book is the full script of this "new", five-act Shakespearean play. It's Shakespeare who plays the role of father that Mr. Phillips cannot (due to his frequent prison sentences). Arthur has great fun with apologists who excuse the Bard's worst moments by claiming that Shakespeare was ahead of his time, but mirrors this behavior by repeatedly returning to put himself at the center of his father's shenanigans. Arthur's relationships with women, especially his sister's girlfriend, also flounder due to his lack of a good example. It's Arthur's sister Dana who escapes her father's curse, finding a way to celebrate Shakespeare (she becomes an actress) that doesn't involve a cycle of pulling away from and drawing back to her Dad.

The story of Arthur and Arthur eventually becomes a sort of thriller: Will young Arthur risk lawsuits and infamy (as well as forgo a big payday), break his contract with Random House, and not allow the play to be published? Since we know the play's true provenance the question is moot; it's whether Arthur can succeed as a man and a writer on his own that matters. Shakespeare can't be torn down but he also can't be piggybacked off of; that's the one thing Arthur's Dad fails to see. I wonder about including the entire script; while the play The Tragedy of Arthur (with dueling footnotes by Arthur and a Shakespearean scholar) is an entertaining enough read I found myself wanting to speed through it after the novel's conclusion. The play might have worked better as a sort of MacGuffin, constantly discussed but never fully seen. The complicated things that pass between father and son are well and imaginatively handled here, and I'll continue to return to Phillips's books to watch his next move. The Tragedy of Arthur is a literary game with not one but two beating hearts at its center. (also posted at Mostly Movies)
Profile Image for Obsidian.
2,676 reviews918 followers
November 15, 2016
This book is odd. It is set up as a memoir, but it's not. The author takes a fictional account of his family and includes the Arthur legend in it with some Shakespeare thrown in. It shouldn't have worked, but honestly the book as a whole really does work if you read the play first (it's in the back) and work back through the fictional introduction by the author talking about him wanting to show the world about his father. And as we know about the Arthur legend, it is ultimately a tale of fathers and stand in fathers.

Starting with the play, this is written by Shakespeare and looks into Arthur being the son of the King Uter Pendragon and a noblewoman that Uter raped. After Uter's death, Arthur's right to rule is challenged by heir to the crown of Pictland, Mordred. Mordred's father is King Loth who refuses to go to war with Arthur. This play is about how of course these two men to do go to war. And how Arthur is brought low due his love of a woman who caused him to forget that above all else he was king.

I honestly think this book would be cool to borrow just to read the play itself. I do think though that the play does not read like Shakespeare at all to me. Maybe because I recently got done reading 10 of his plays. But, for me, it was very nice mimicry.

Then you go back to the introduction by Phillips who begins to tell the tale of his father who is a forger. Arthur's father is in and out of jail for most of his life and eventually when he is younger, his mother divorces him and marries someone from her hometown. Arthur and his twin sister Dana have a lot of ups and downs through the years. Though twins, they differ on the subject of their father. Dana defends him and Arthur I find saw through his father the most.

Eventually though, the introduction does turn into a mini-walk though Shakespeare here and there. You have some references to A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night.

We have the character of Arthur trying to be honest and I thought this faux memoir was very well done. We get to see an imperfect man and husband and father. And yes even son and brother. But I think he also shone a light on an imperfect family that refused to acknowledge the truth about each other.

In the end, a twist worthy of Shakespeare has Arthur out in the cold away from his family. That was the one part that didn't feel real to me. It also didn't make sense his own mother would somehow go along with things. And the character of Petra really didn't evolve more beyond somehow being the perfect woman. I thought she played a lot of games and I didn't much care for her or Dana in the end.
Profile Image for Jane.
1,495 reviews169 followers
April 14, 2016
Too clever by half. A supposed lost early play of the Bard is discovered--by Arthur's father, a con man, who has spent most of his life in jail, for, among other forgeries, faking lottery tickets, making crop circles. The play is given to Arthur, his son and narrator of the Introduction. Is this drama really by Shakespeare, or is it a fake? To me the play itself was a pastiche of the history plays and of Macbeth, thrown together in a jumble. Random House, Arthur's publisher, insists on its publication but permits Arthur to write an introduction, hence Arthur's explaining his motivation.

Original and creative, but often repetitious. The play itself was BORING!
Profile Image for Richard Seltzer.
Author 13 books118 followers
May 18, 2021
A slow start to a convoluted story, told in the "introduction" to a supposed forged Shakespeare play. The "introduction" gradually became very interesting, and the narrative style was fun in a way that reminded me of Nabokov's Pale Fire. But then it ended abruptly with the text of the play itself, which is terrible, barely readable. the play didn't feel at all like Shakespeare, and the novel would have been far better if the play wasn't included.
Profile Image for Roger Brunyate.
946 reviews631 followers
June 10, 2016
Clever, clever… maybe too clever

Think, for a moment, of a novel as a painting. You have the central subject: a picture of human beings living their rich, messy, and often complicated lives. You have the means by which the artist puts this across: his choice of medium, his style, his handling of paint or language. And then you have the frame: the structure that holds everything together, that comes between the artifact and the real world. For a long time in my reading, I thought I was dealing with a four-star book: an intricate canvas in a beautifully constructed frame carrying a central image—the human story—that just failed to move me. I still think this. But my admiration continued to grow for Phillips' brilliant concept, his prodigious knowledge, and his profusely scattered pearls of wisdom, to the point where I realized that five stars were nowhere near enough to do them justice. Indeed, it seemed as though the frame had become the subject and the story was only secondary. For many readers, that will be more than enough.

The frame in this case is what purports to be the first modern edition of a lost Shakespeare play, The Tragedy of Arthur. Discovered (or forged?) by Phillips' father, Arthur Phillips senior, the play is printed in its entirety, replete with footnotes both scholarly and sly, and preceded by a 250-page introduction by his son, the well-known novelist whose life and career appear to be very close to what he tells us of himself in the book. For, rather than a scholarly introduction, he has written an autobiographical sketch of growing up with his twin sister Dana, and developing a love for language and story-telling from his miracle-working father—repeatedly in and out of jail for working too many miracles, and ultimately wrecking the marriage. All this while, Arthur has been part of the family lore, until at the end of his life Arthur Phillips senior reveals a 1597 printing of the play that is the basis for this Random House edition. The whole edifice is a brilliant post-modern construction as complex, as daring—and as entertaining—as they come.

Let's take the question of authenticity. There may be readers who assume, at least for a while, that the play is genuine. But it says "a novel" on the cover, which implies that it is not. I must say I came to this with a good deal of skepticism, wondering how Arthur Phillips (the real one) could write a play that would fool a Shakespearean for a moment. [I would not call myself that professionally, but I won a Shakespeare prize at Cambridge and still teach a Shakespeare course for actors.] And indeed it did not convince: the verse is just too full of archaisms and coined words, Shakespearean hallmarks it is true, but used as though to show off rather than communicate. Oddly enough, the prose passages are easier to accept, but overall it just didn't feel right. So I read on, smugly sure of my own superiority. But then I find that Phillips has been there before me, anticipating all my objections. "If you think it's him, it sounds like him," Arthur says to his sister; "if you think it's not, it doesn't." Besides, what we think of Shakespeare is shaped by the mature plays, but here we would be dealing with very early work, around the time of Henry VI Part 1, which is by no means typical of his later style.

As I read on, I became more and more impressed by Phillips' understanding of Shakespeare. Entering a rebellious phase (coinciding with the discovery of her own sexuality), Dana concocts a complex anti-Stratfordian theory that the canon was the work of two men, collaborators and rivals, working behind Shakespeare as their public facade. It is a nutty theory, but it suddenly explains some problems in the Sonnets that had bothered me for ages. Whether this particular play is fake or not, Phillips constantly offers insights into the accepted canon that makes me see it in new ways. And I looked more into Arthur too, finding islands of comparative simplicity among the bombast that almost did convince me, such as this, from the beginning of Arthur's wooing of Guenhera in Act III, scene 1:
No mockery but of my wordless self:
No poet, Guen, no orator at all.
I am untongued when most I want new words
To lock your beauty in my longest thoughts.
I spent too soon the language I did know,
Like to an actor hoarse from preparation.
As I followed Phillips' fascinating account of how Random House has the play authenticated by experts, I found myself nurturing an impossible hope—not necessarily that the play would be genuine Shakespeare, but that it would be genuine within the context of this fiction, and that Arthur Phillips senior would not be the only one to have worked miracles.

So I come back to the notion of the frame mediating between the artifact and the real world. By so developing his frame, Phillips essentially blurs its boundaries. The novel is no longer a fiction safely contained within neutral covers; the covers themselves—the preface, the title page—are also part of the fiction. Similarly, we know that part of the "Arthur Phillips" presented in the story is the real novelist who published certain books in certain years, but we also assume that part is not real—his father's criminality, some intimate aspects of his relationship with his sister. For me, paradoxically, the erasure of the line between fact and fiction makes the characters seem less, not more, believable. It is clear that certain aspects of the Arthur play were constructed to parallel the lives of the Phillips family, but I also felt that the family was fictionalized so as to parallel the play. As a result, while Arthur's love-hate relationship with his father, his own search for identity, and his loving rivalry with his sister are all fine subjects for fiction, I never quite felt them in my gut. Had I done so, five or even six stars would hardly have been sufficient.
Profile Image for eden.
50 reviews26 followers
August 10, 2016
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".
620 reviews11 followers
January 3, 2012
After reading the preface, I decided to do what was suggested: skip to the back of the book and read the play, and then return to the 'Introduction' (which is actually the meat of the book). This turned out to be a good idea for me for two reasons: (1) since it clearly *is* the case that this play was written by the character's father to describe their lives, knowing it's contents provides a few interesting connections while reading the introduction, and (2) it seems that I enjoy Shakespeare's writing style more than Phillips's, and if I'd come to the play after reading the rest of the book I might not have had the patience to give it a try.

I think the biggest issue this book is going to have is confusion - I know they're trying to fake the 'major historical find' of a new Shakespeare play, but from the beginning it's not always obvious what's part of the book's made-up setting and what's not (aggravated by the packaging of the advanced copy). I think this will limit the readership that really finds the book enjoyable, and some readers will take fictional portions of the book as fact (like the number of Goodreads reviews for this book that talk about how interested the reader is to read a new Shakespeare play or how excited they are to learn more about author Arthur Phillip's life).

In the end, the author's style just doesn't sit quite right with me. Formal and wordy, but without the satisfaction of having read something *really good* or a really great plot or setting twist to provide the necessary satisfaction to have made the effort worthwhile. (Note: I checked out GoogleBooks previews for The Egyptologist and The Song is You, and found that I had the same problem with them. If you've enjoyed Arthur Phillip's other books, you'll likely not have the same difficulties with this one that I did.)
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Ruthiella.
1,425 reviews47 followers
March 15, 2021
The protagonist of The Tragedy of Arthur is purportedly the author Arthur Phillips and the book is one very long introduction, part biography, part confession, to a lost but now found Shakespeare Play “The Tragedy of Arthur” about the mythical King Arthur. The actual play is printed at the end.

Arthur and his twin sister Dana have a colorful father who has spent most of their young lives in prison for various cons and forgeries. So when Arthur Sr. gives Arthur Jr. the original 16th century manuscript of the allegedly lost play, it is possibly simply a very good fake. But the gift of the play and Arthur Jr.’s reluctance to accept it as authentic has much more to do with his damaged relationship with his father than it does with anything else.

This is the third book by Phillips that I’ve read. Each one has been so different from the other, though I see a repetition of certain ideas around human deception and perception. I think he is a great writer and I had no trouble maintaining my engagement with the story. However, the meta aspect of this novel really didn’t work for me. I didn’t believe it (true or not). And I am very ignorant of Shakespeare. I don’t really understand or even like his plays much. There is so much that I likely missed here, though I also did learn a bit about Shakespeare by reading it.
Profile Image for F Clark.
449 reviews4 followers
October 13, 2020
The framework for The Tragedy of Arthur is so clever and well-executed that I had to keep reminding myself that the work was a novel. The narrator/protagonist is woefully unsympathetic but has the virtue of being self aware in that regard.

The supporting characters are not terribly well drawn, but since we are seeing them through the experience of the narrator/protagonist, that makes perfect sense.

A knowledge of Shakespeare's plays is helpful but not required since the narrator tells us what we need to know.

Recommended.
Profile Image for Marjorie Hakala.
Author 4 books21 followers
February 4, 2011
So here is a novel in a shape I've never seen before:

1. A brief preface from Random House stating how excited they are to publish this brand new Shakespeare play, alluding to the role of the Phillips family in bringing the text to light, and suggesting that maybe we should go straight to the play and come back to Arthur Phillips' introduction later.

2. A 256-page "Introduction" about Arthur Phillips and his family and how his father came to leave him a quarto of The Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare. Phillips has begged his editors to cancel publication. The Introduction explains why he contracted to publish the book and then tried to back out, no longer believing the play was Shakespeare's.

I don't know anything about Arthur Phillips, so I don't know how much truth is in this introduction, except that he is apparently from Minnesota, as in the book, and the real titles of his other novels are sprinkled through the narrative. The story told here is very much a novel, at least in terms of genre--it's got a novel's treatment of themes and dialogue and scene. It's a story about a family, mostly. The father, Arthur Phillips senior, is a professional and frequently-jailed forger. He has two children, Arthur junior and his twin sister Dana. Dana and her father share a great love for Shakespeare. Arthur the novelist is less interested. He makes the case, throughout this introduction, that Shakespeare's status as the greatest writer of our language is essentially a historical accident, a result of the playwright's friends having been savvy enough to get together after his death and publish the First Folio. There were, he argues, other writers equally beloved. We think he's the greatest now because we've been told he's the greatest, and because, holding that belief, we read him more attentively and creatively than we read anybody else. By the time the story is done, Arthur is convinced that the play is not authentic, and pretty much the whole world--the whole actual world, including some scholars who are real outside the book--disagrees with him. They discuss the meter of the text and place it within Shakespeare's career. They pick up historical details that no contemporary forger, presumably, would come up with. (All of which is fascinating in this context, since every "proof" of the play's authenticity takes place within the book's fiction and so all those authentic lines and all their proofs have been made up. There's a kind of paradox here: it would prove the play's authorship if you discovered something in the text that only Shakespeare would do, but if you know what those things are, then they are known and thus can be forged. The only real proof would be if the play contained something nobody but Shakespeare knew, in which case nobody could recognize the proof.)

There's also a story to go with all this, to which I'm not doing justice here, but the result of all the discussion is that by the time I got to...

3. The full text of the play The Tragedy of Arthur

...I felt like I'd been out-thunk. I don't know if it was the intention, but the setup placed me in the situation of reading a "Shakespearean" play with the critical arguments played out but without the fog of history and mythology and criticism and past productions that surrounds a part of the canon. What remained was mostly the hard question: Is it good? Is it as good?

This is incredibly audacious--that Phillips has not just pulled off this act of literary ventriloquism and done all the criticism for us, but actively invited us to compare the quality of his writing with Shakespeare's. And guys? Parts of it are really good. There are lines that I find flat (too many repeated words to fit the meter, a monologue moving too tidily between its dramatic and its philosophical meaning). But parts of it are beautiful, in the manner of those passages in the plays that you don't understand right away but whose meter and imagery are immediately lovely. There are Hamlet-like monologues of self-doubt, and if they don't reach Hamlet's heights of poetry they go farther in other ways. Arthur, in this play, doesn't believe he's particularly fit to be king at all, and he undoes himself in curious and sympathetic ways. He's a remarkable creation.

There are footnotes from Phillips about lines that convince him his father wrote the play, and further notes from a scholar (this one fictional) who disagrees with him on numerous points, but by the time we get to the end of The Tragedy of Arthur, the explicit comparisons to the Phillips family history have receded into the background. There are no notes on the last page of the play, and nothing more after that. It's like we've been spun round and round for a game of blind man's bluff, and then we stop, and no one is there. And how was the play? It seems impossible to say. I have a feeling some reviewer will come along in April, when this book is released, and publish an opinion that's completely contrary to what I've said here, particularly about the play's quality. But reading it felt, in some ways, like reading a Shakespeare play; and it felt, in its newness, like reading a Shakespeare play never has the chance to feel.
Profile Image for Felice.
250 reviews80 followers
April 28, 2011
There are a whole lot of Arthurs in The Tragedy of Arthur. There's the author, Arthur Phillips, the main character, Arthur, his father Arthur, King Arthur and a long lost Arthur. That last one is the second of the two tragedies of Arthur. In that list there's the lost Shakespearean play about King Arthur and the tragedies of all the other Arthurs who appear in the novel. Got it? Good because it's worth getting.

For the moment let's concentrate on the character Arthur. He was raised by a forger, conman father, Arthur. The kind of man who can make you believe anything he wants you to but as a father leaves everything to be desired. There were three constants in Arthur's life growing up: his love for his twin sister Dana, his family's' attraction to Shakespeare and the decades his father spent in prison. Both Arthur and Dana are influenced by Shakespeare as children. Dana becomes an actress and part time Shakespearean scholar and Arthur becomes a writer. Who knows maybe he becomes the other Arthur Phillips?

When Dad has finally done his time, his stretch, paid his dues and exits jail an old man he tells Arthur his great secret. A lifetime before he had stolen an original quarto from a British Estate. He claims that the quarto is a lost play by Shakespeare, "The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain The Tragedy of Arthur". The play itself is a potboiler that follows the basic Arthurian legend. It's not great Shakespeare but does that matter if it's Shakespeare? Dad wants to get it authenticated and published--with his son's help. Could this be true or Dads' masterpiece con? The two Arthurs are finally able to come together, to bond over this play. Son Arthur even forgets for a moment that he's not Dad's favorite. For a moment.

It's a Father-Son novel! It's a memoir! It's a literary investigation! It's a play by Shakespeare! It's a lie, it's the truth. The Tragedy of Arthur is a cut from whole cloth creation about invention and forgery or maybe invention verses forgery. Phillips, the author, uses Shakespeare as his device to write about what artists invent, how we invent ourselves, how the media (in this case Phillip's publisher Random House) try to invent events, and what may be invention or forgery in all things Shakespeare.

The obvious comparisons to The Tragedy of Arthur are Nabokov's Pale Fire and A.S. Byatt's Possession. In both of those novels the author created works attributed to another writer and then built a novel around their discovery and critique. Phillips does all that and then takes that idea two steps further by bringing the unreliability of memoir and a populist sense of skepticism into the mix. His contrivances hit all the serious notes and still entertains.

The Tragedy of Arthur is exceptional skill on dexterous display. I have no doubt that for every reference the plot makes to one of Shakespeare's play that I caught there were fifty others that I missed but blame on my own educational laziness and not the author's wit and knowledge. Arthur Phillips uses humor, creativity and smarts in a way that dazzles in this novel. The Tragedy of Arthur is a completely accessible, virtuoso performance by a very talented, smart writer.

Profile Image for Ellie.
1,448 reviews365 followers
September 15, 2011
The Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare: The First Modern Edition of His Lost Play, with an Introduction and Notes by Arthur Phillips by Arthur Phillips was not at all what I expected. Which is funny since I love Phillips' work and know enough to not set up any expectations. He works in his own way and it is rarely the way anyone else works. It's better.

The synopsis of the story presents the protagonist as (naturally) Arthur Phillips the narrator (as separate from? Or supposedly identical to? the work's author), a young man struggling to come to terms with his adored/resented father: a creator of wonder and confusion as he enhances ordinary experiences, often in ways the rest of the world deem criminal (and legally, not merely emotionally, fraudulent). His father specializes in forgeries and hoaxes-of the most creative, literary variety.

My favorite character, though, is not Arthur but his sister, Dana, a perhaps bi-polar, certainly gay, absolutely creative and brilliant character adored by her brother and father. Phillips (the author) writes her character in a way that feels breathtakingly real. We do no (so far) see through her perspective but we feel her impact on her brother and the reverberations of her father's behavior on her.

The play itself is fascinating. I leave it to readers to sort out its value as a part of the Shakespeare canon-as well as which camp they choose to join, the Shakespeare lovers or haters. I know my love for Shakespeare remained intact and my love for Arthur Phillips increased.
Profile Image for Lauren.
736 reviews33 followers
May 3, 2011
Hmm. So I LOVE Phillips' "The Egyptologist." It is one of my all-time favorite books, but I haven't loved anything else by him... haven't even really liked most of his other novels. This one is more intriguing, and his indebtedness to Nabokov is even clearer in this book than in "The Egyptologist," in which he explicitly tips his hat to Nabokov and "Pale Fire" specifically. The narrator of "The Tragedy of Arthur" reminds me of "Lolita's" Humbert Humbert at times. The structure of the novel is similar to "Pale Fire's" in that the narrator is writing a preface/criticism of another (greater) writer's work of fiction. And finally, with the intense sibling storyline, "Ada or Ardor" comes to mind.

Anyway. So here's the thing about Phillips (and me), I think. He is technically very gifted, and he is a master of creative literary hijinx -- much of which probably goes over my head. But there is something... missing from his writing, some essential "heart" (NOT that I go for sappy writing), but for me his writing tends to be acrobatic and skillful while missing out on the essential human condition. (Did I just say that? My 4-year-old is having a tantrum in her room, and my 7-month-old is napping on my lap. So I'm a bit scattered right now...)

--

Okay, yeah, after writing that review I tried to continue reading this book, but I kept feeling the same way about it. It's missing something... It feels empty, cold, and even though it is supposed to be a family drama, it just rings false to me.

I don't care what the critics say, this book isn't for me!
Profile Image for Sarah.
461 reviews4 followers
March 5, 2018
OKAY. So, I really enjoyed this book. I liked the literary-fiction-esqu-ness of the writing style. Phillips impressed me many times with his use of language—his sentences, even if not “fun” in content, were playful and artful in structure. I spent more time reading this than I generally do other fiction books because I wanted to appreciate (and learn from) Phillips’ style (also i had a bad cold for a few days while reading and couldn’t make much progress, so).

Other Thoughts:
- I believe this to be a piece of fiction, but there are many similarities to our author Arthur Phillips and our narrator Arthur Phillips. I mean, he is writing himself in a piece of fiction that is told as non fiction. Some things are the same (he is an author in both worlds; his books have the same titles in both worlds; he has two sons in both worlds, etc). How much is fiction and how much is non fiction? I really appreciated the play between the lines of genre here—it gave me a lot to think about while reading and kept me really engaged in the text.
- Our narrator, Arthur, man. He makes some really bad decisions and gets wrapped up in this scenario where he doesn’t have the ability anymore to trust himself or others, to know if something is real or not. The writing and our narrator are very self-aware. A lot of the text is Arthur examining himself and his actions and showing us how his brain worked to get the various scenarios on page for his readers.
- Dang, Dana. Also, sorry, Dana. I didn’t love how she was portrayed at the end as a kind of unfeeling all-powerful person.. it just seemed so anti everything we had been shown about her character up to that point. And while I think the situation deserved a big moment and big consequences, what actually happened felt too contrived for me (avoiding spoilers here).
- I wonder if Shakespeare scholars have read this and read The Tragedy of Arthur and what they think of its construction.
- Also really loved how the “Introduction” to the book/play was some 250 pages long.

All in all, I thought this was witty and insightful and addressed a lot of different literary and scholarly and human topics.
Profile Image for Alex Bledsoe.
Author 61 books749 followers
May 14, 2018
I waited until I'd finished to find out if "Arthur Phillips," the character in the novel, was the same as "Arthur Phillips," the novelist. You'd think that, in an ostensible memoir (despite being called a novel on the cover), it would be taken for granted that they're the same, but here, you can't be sure. That's because a big part of this book is that neither the reader nor the characters can ever be entirely certain what constitutes the truth. It's a romp, with its serious themes never intruding on the humor (witness the battling footnotes in the play manuscript). If you're a fan of Shakespeare who can take a joke, this is a whole lot of fun.
Profile Image for Chelsea.
108 reviews
April 4, 2017
Possibly the most brilliantly structured book I've ever read. Really a 4.5 stars for me. I'm awed by the genius that went into creating a believable Shakespeare play and how the themes in the introduction are approached, but I also didn't get the same gut feeling that I usually get when I finish a 5-star book.
April 29, 2018
A piece of staggering genius. Almost impossibly good. Right up there with Infinite Jest in terms of execution and overall brilliance, and one of the few books that justifies postmodernism's bullshit.
Arthur Phillips is a genius.
Profile Image for Laura Whichello.
13 reviews10 followers
October 10, 2019
This book earned all five stars - an amazingly smart novel, both funny and poignant, and as an added bonus the play is truly an achievement as well. Definitely will be in the top five of books read this year.
Profile Image for Jason.
247 reviews115 followers
October 26, 2019
The play is terrific; the idea of the whole project, genius; the novel section (or “Introduction”), overwrought and often ludicrous.
9 reviews3 followers
August 18, 2012
This is a very clever book. Arthur Phillips created a "Shakespearean play" and created a "Shakespeare scholar" to provide scholarly footnotes to the fake play. His introduction is actually a novella, the story of a writer named Arthur Phillips who was named after his father, a professional forger.

Reading the Shakespearean play is a hoot. Arthur Phillips -- who, in this situation, is difficult to refer to because he is the author, the main character and the forger -- is a bright man. In fact, while reading this book, I finally (DUH!) came to the realization that we read in order to engage with another mind. In the case of Arthur Phillips, it is a superior mind.

But, I digress. Back to the faux drama. Several years ago, some inflated idiot somewhere . . . did I read about this person . . . did I actually attend his talk . . . was it a he? Yes, I think it was a he . . . went on and on and on about how our "greatest playwright" or is it "playwrite?" . . . never wrote about the Matter of Britain. Surely, there has to be a lost play by Shakespeare on Arthur . . . not Arthur Phillips . . . but Arthur Rex, King of all the Britons. What a pile! Really? Is there a manual that somewhere that instructs great-playwrights . . . or the would-be great . . . on what subject matters are suitable for the greatness whether in act or in potency?

I partook of a quest, traveling to Lenox, Massachusetts to hear Arthur Phillips, the author, speak at Shakespeare and Company, largely because I enjoyed the review of the book on NPR. I am a Stratfordian. I mentioned this to Arthur Phillips, not the character in the introduction but the actual person, during the question and answer period, telling him that my reaction to the anti-Stratfordians was that they did not give credit to the individual. Why couldn't a boy from a provincial town without a university degree write plays? We recognize Bob Dylan, the late Richard Pryor and Woody Allen as gifted entertainers and talented wordsmiths and none of them completed university degrees.

Arthur Phillips, the lecturer, nodded then mentioned that we hold Shakespeare up to an unrealistic standard. To illustrate (not to forge as did Arthur Phillips, Senior) he raised his right hand, palm up, to eye level and shook it. It is in this attitude that his play, that is, Shakespeare's lost play, The Tragedy of Arthur was written. As I wrote above: the play is a hoot. To those familiar with Shakespeare's work, this satire exposes each excess in the Bard's canon. It is childishly bawdy. It is repetitious. It is wordy. It is a festival of excess. I loved it. I love Shakespeare. I have a Shakespeare switchplate in my bathroom. I teach Shakespeare. I attend as many stagings of his plays as possible. I once spent a summer, systematically watching several versions of as many of the filmed plays of the Bard as my local video store had before it closed. When I am being self-satirical, I tell people that I am the re-incarnation of the Dark Lady and that my name was Amelia Bassano. However, I have a sense of humor about Shakespeare. Yeah, I adore him, but as he wrote about my earlier self, I do walk on the ground. So did he. So does Arthur Phillips, a talented author with a gift for language.

As for the Matter of Britain, well, a late friend always called The Venerable Bede The Venomous Bede. That nonsense about a lost book? Sure, there was a lost book: Arthur Phillips, Senior, put it in a safe deposit box. But, let's face it. Mallory is unreadable. His work is an unforgivable, unmasterful, unreadable slog. Arthur Phillips' The Tragedy of Arthur is very readable. A delight.
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,440 reviews29.4k followers
Read
July 25, 2011
I don't know if this ever happens to you, but when I love an author, I eagerly anticipate their next book, and often buy it shortly after it is released, because I can't wait to get my hands on it. This was definitely the case with Arthur Phillips, whose book The Song is You was among the best books I read in 2009. But sadly, although I've seen almost nothing but fantastic reviews for his latest book, The Tragedy of Arthur, I was really disappointed by it.



The concept behind the book is really interesting. The narrator is an author named Arthur Phillips. Just before his death, Arthur's father, who made his living as a con artist and forger, gave Arthur what he claimed was a long-lost Shakespeare play, The Tragedy of Arthur. His father's dying request was that Arthur do the necessary research to prove that the play was legitimately written by Shakespeare and then ensure its publication, sharing the proceeds with his mother, sister and one of his father's associates. Arthur's twin sister, Dana, and their father shared a lifelong love of Shakespeare, which Arthur felt he needed to compete with; in fact, he became an author to prove to his father he was capable of creating something that caused people to feel things. As the verification of the manuscript continues, Arthur begins to question whether the play is legitimate or his father's last big con, and struggles with what to do, with both the play and his life—and major consequences ensue.



The first half of the novel is supposed to be Arthur's introduction to Random House's version of the play, while the second half is the play itself. While I really liked the concept of the book, Arthur's character is tremendously unlikeable (despite his struggles with his father), and I stopped caring what happened to him. The mess he proceeds to make of his life—and how those around him deal with those mistakes—was probably the most intolerable part of the book, because it felt tremendously false. I felt as if Phillips tried to throw a lot of things into this book; some of it stuck and some of it didn't, at least for me. If you're a Shakespeare fan, there is some really interesting information to be gleaned from the book, and the "Shakespeare play" itself is fascinating. But I guess I'll just wait for Phillips' next book and see if it resonates for me more like his last book than this one.
Profile Image for Miles.
254 reviews14 followers
February 3, 2015
The Tragedy of Arthur is a Comedy of Lies. I recommend it very highly. It takes Shakespeare as its context, and forgery and truth-telling as its subject, and bends the reader's mind around an infinite regress of fictions purporting to be realities. How so? Read on if you want the semi-spoiled version - I don't think it will take anything away from your pleasure in reading the book.

Arthur Phillips, the author, writes in the first person of a character named Arthur Phillips, who is the son of a notorious and skilled forger Phillip Arthur. Arthur Phillip's father, who spends most of his life in prison for his crimes, gives him a "newly found" Shakespearean play, in manuscript form, to all appearances and scientific testing printed in the 17th century. The play "Arthur", is provided in full text in the back of the book. (Yes, the real Arthur Phillips wrote an entire pseudo-Shakespearean play for this novel - this is the one part of the book that I did not read completely, but only skimmed.)

Arthur, the protagonist, is forced to choose between his desire to take the play and its gift as a token of his father's sincere love, and his certainty that his father is a liar and a forger to his bones. As Arthur Phillips the protagonist struggles to work out the crises of middle age, his relationship to his beloved twin sister, his mother, his wife and children in an unhappy marriage, we flip back and forth between fictions that are represented as truths, truths that appear to be fictions, and the struggle of a man to tell one true story that will reconnect him to those he loves, and to life. And of course that story is itself a fiction, written by a fictional Arthur Phillips, whose only redemption lies in telling the truth.

The book is smart in a very specific and literary sense. The author has a marvelous way of dropping big reveals in casual off-hand remarks - remarks that change the entire direction of the story, or one's entire perception of reality. He peppers the narrative with tokens of authenticity - letters from publishers, JPEGs of "evidence" proving the falsity of this or that narrative, and of course the purported text of an entire "Shakespearean" play. We are constantly invited to suspend our disbelief, if only to follow the story, and then reminded of the many interlocking falsehoods upon which this narrative web is built. I can't recommend this highly enough. I really enjoyed it.
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