“The Tragedy of Arthur” by Arthur Phillips and William Shakespeare

“The Tragedy of Arthur” by Arthur Phillips and William Shakespeare (1597, 2011) – 368 pages

“The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good – in spite of all the people who say he is very good.” – Robert Graves If it didn’t have his name on it, half his work would be booed off the stage”. – “Arthur Phillips”

This is the novel where Arthur Phillips one ups William Shakespeare.  For “The Tragedy of Arthur”, I’m going to forsake any pretence to objectivity.   I loved this novel.

The book consists of the entire play “The Tragedy of Arthur” by William Shakespeare and the play’s introduction by Arthur Phillips.  The introduction is 256 pages long.  It tells the wild and woolly story how this unknown Shakespeare play winds up in Minneapolis and in Arthur Phillips’ hands.  The character “Arthur Phillips” has very personal and family reasons to be down on all things Shakespeare – his Shakespeare-loving con-man father and his Shakespeare-loving twin sister Dana.   Parts of this story are real and parts are made up, and there is no good way to tell which is which.  The story is told with élan, high energy and humor throughout.

In the quotes above, I put the name “Arthur Phillips” in quotation marks, because this “Arthur Phillips” is the character in the novel and not the author.  I don’t know for sure what the actual novelist Arthur Phillips thinks of William Shakespeare, but do keep in mind that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

I’ve read three of Arthur Phillips’ previous novels, “Prague”, “Angelica”, and “The Song is You”.  He is one of the writers on my must-read list.  But even given that his previous novels have delighted me, “The Tragedy of Arthur” is still a revelation.  Of course I’ve had a thirty year interest in Shakespeare’s plays, and I’ve read, heard, and seen a lot of them, some of them many times.  Being familiar with Shakespeare helped me appreciate “The Tragedy of Arthur” even more, but I could also see how someone not familiar with Shakespeare’s work could like this novel as well.   It just takes a good sense of humor to appreciate the shaggy dog story about Arthur and his family.

And what of the play “The Tragedy of Arthur” itself?  The play is much more than a pastiche; For all intents and purposes it is a Shakespeare play. All the elements are there, the iambic pentameter, the trials and tribulations of a King and his court, the dramatic battles, the wicked villain, the playful romantic bantering, the nauseating English super-patriotism, plenty of footnotes,  Just like in Skakespeare, there are highly detailed elaborate footnote explanations for lines I completely understood anyhow.  Then for lines I didn’t understand  there usually were no footnotes at all..

Some of the lines in the “The Tragedy of Arthur” are simply superb.

NURSE :           You yielded comfort nine full moons ago.

                             There, there, sit quiet now, you jar the prince.

GUENHERA : What ancient sage first wond’ring marked that line

                                 Of moons ‘twixt lover’s smile and labor’s cries?

NURSE :           Twas known when Adam first leered eyes at Eve. 

The entire story of the play coheres in a very Shakespearean way. I’d really like to see “The Tragedy of Arthur” performed on stage. It was written by Shakespeare in 1597, very early in his playwriting career.   To me it resonates more as one of Shakespeare’s historical plays which were written early in his career rather than as one of his major tragedies.

The dueling footnotes between Roland Verre the Shakespeare ‘expert’ and “Arthur Phillips” alone  are worth the price of admission.

Arthur Phillips, how presumptuous of you and Thank You!


7 responses to this post.

  1. I somehow doubt that those fonts and writing styles on the cover were used in 1597…


    • Hi Biblibio,
      I hadn’t thought about the fonts, but that’s a great point. They look much too smooth and rounded for that time. Whoever wrote “The Tragedy of Arthur”, it is a pretty good Shakespeare play.


  2. Posted by esperatus on August 2, 2011 at 10:58 PM

    Perhaps i needed to be in love with Phillips to appreciate The Tragedy of Arthur and reading his earlier work might have facilitated this. However i was not. As such TOA being my first meeting i found Phillips shallow, selfish, irresponsible, and decidedly unamusing. To others he must seem courageous to paint such an unflattering self portrait judging by the comments i have read. I found “Arthur Phillips” tedious, predictable, and whiny. “Phillips” as reprehensible as he is has more integrity than Phillips by actually attempting to withdrawing from publishing.


  3. Hi Esperatus,
    These contrarian viewpoints keep us reviewers honest. You saw Phillips as cashing in on Shakespeare; I saw this as more of a playful honoring of Shakespeare, because Phillips would have had to study Shakespeare quite closely to imitate this well.

    I do believe disagreement about books is healthy and essentiaL and value your opinions.


  4. […] The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips (see Tony’s review from Tony’s Book World) […]


  5. How fascinating, and how clever! I love authors who are playful in thsi way:)


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