Sunday, March 06, 2011

Book Review: "The Tragedy of Arthur"

Arthur Phillips' The Tragedy of Arthur (forthcoming from Random House) includes the text of a newly rediscovered Shakespeare play. Or it doesn't. Either way, it's a delightful examination of books and forgeries and Shakespeare scholarship, wrapped up in a meta-narrative and tied with a bow.

Phillips' father (also Arthur) is a Shakespeare fanatic, a gene which passed not to Phillips himself but to his twin sister Dana, whose relationships with her brother, father, the Bard, and others form a major part of the story here. The elder Arthur was also a forger, whose exploits landed him in prison over and over again. When he reveals to Arthur fils, our narrator, that he's got a quarto edition of an unknown Shakespeare play stashed in a safety deposit box, and that he wants Phillips to edit an edition of it, this book is born.

The Tragedy of Arthur (the book beside me as I type) consists of Phillip's narrative introduction to the play, in the form of a memoir interspersed with short summaries of the play's plot. Included also are a selection of correspondence between Phillips and his editors at Random House, as well as letters from the various scholars brought in to authenticate The Tragedy of Arthur (the play, by Shakespeare), which takes up about the final third of the book (and is accompanied by Phillips' notes).

This book made me smile. I love the playfulness of the concept and the different levels of meta- that Phillips is able to pull in, as well as the commentary on how we view Shakespeare and his works.

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