Review : The Tragedy of Arthur

[ Ok, so I’m a little late on this one. I have to admit I was highly confused when, within days of even *receiving* my copy, my feeds were flooded with everybody else in the world putting up their review. How do these people read so fast??]

This will make the third book I’ve read on the “What would happen if a new work of Shakespeare turned up?” idea. The first two attempted to be glorified Da Vinci Codes complete with murder, car cases, and twist endings.
The Tragedy of Arthur is very much not that kind of book, and I love it. It is not about finding a lost work like Cardenio or Love’s Labour’s Won. It is about a man named Arthur Phillips (which also happens to be the name of the author) who is handed a previously unknown Shakespeare play called, appropriately enough, The Tragedy of Arthur. The only known copy, as a matter of fact – which means that he would be the copyright holder, and thus in financial control of the world’s most valuable artistic discovery.

But! There’s a catch. Arthur’s father gave him the book. Arthur’s father also happens to be a professional counterfeit man who has spent his life in jail for those crimes. He swears, however, that the book is an original that he really did find, not forge.

What to do, what to do?

I ended up quite loving this book. It starts with the story of the children, Arthur and Dana, as they’re raised by their debatably criminal father, who also happens to be a lifelong fan of Shakespeare. Arthur, the narrator, never really gets into Shakespeare. Dana, his twin sister, takes to it like, well, a Shakespeare geek. Truthfully, Dana is a far more interesting character than Arthur. A struggling novelist himself, Arthur spends way too much of this memoir whining about his relationship with his father and how he’s taking the memoirist’s privilege of making difficult memories seem easier, etc etc etc…

Meanwhile, I’d like my girls to grow up like Dana. It is 9yr old Dana who goes to visit her father in jail, and then promptly recites the courtroom scene from Merchant of Venice loudly enough for the guards to hear. Later in life, when Dana goes through her inevitable teenage rebellion from her father, she does something so unthinkably rebellious that I laughed out loud. She becomes an anti-Stratfordian. (Ok, maybe I take back what I said about my kids growing up like her!) I can just imagine, her poor dad is in prison and their entire conversation is through written letters, and she’s taunting him with her theories about the Earl of Oxford. I think I would have planned an escape.

Is the plot believable? When I heard that it was about a counterfeit-man who claimed to have a Shakespeare play, the ending sounds pretty obvious. Of course it’s fake, right? Well, that’s what’s cool – the book’s not going to tell you. Some of the characters think that it is, some don’t.

There’s much to geek out over. We learn about how to test paper and ink not just for age but for materials and composition. We learn all about Shakespeare’s word choices, what he would and wouldn’t do, how his early years differ from his later years. We learn about merchandising, and copyright law. Professor Crystal makes a cameo and gets to say cool things like “All the rhymes rhyme in original pronunciation! That’s good!” If you understand who that is and what that sentence means, you’re probably going to love this book 🙂

And then? Here’s where the author takes it over the top. He actually wrote an entirely new, five-act Shakespeare play. You heard that right. The play in question? Is actually included. Obviously it’s not going to pass the ink and paper tests 🙂 but the most hardcore geeks among us can have a grand old time digging through word choice and narrative structure and decide for themselves whether this one could pass for the real thing. I have to admit that I have not yet read through the play (it is not required to complete the book), but I look forward to doing so.

A very refreshing change indeed from the car-chase-laden Da Vinci Code meets Cardenio that I’ve been subjected to in the past. I’m glad I got to read it.

2 thoughts on “Review : The Tragedy of Arthur

  1. I remember reading Stephen Greenblatt's review in the NY Times Book Review. It sounded interesting, but I thought the play itself might be a bit dreary rather than fun. I am interested to see what your take is on the play itself.

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