Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Tragedy of Arthur

Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Tragedy of Arthur

Article excerpt

ARTHUR PHILLIPS, The Tragedy of Arthur. New York: Random House, 2011. Pp. ix, 368. ISBN: 978-1-4000-6647-6. $26.00.

Arthur Phillips's The Tragedy of Arthur presents itself as an edition of a newly found Shakespeare play, The Tragedy of Arthur, complete with an editorial Preface about the significance of this new find, an introduction by Arthur Phillips, the character who discovered the play, and the play itself. In the play's depiction of Arthur, Phillips draws from the chronicle histories, particularly Holinshed. Yet he changes this Arthur from the successful martial figure of the chronicles to an individual whose success lies more in the strengths of his advisors than his own merits. Hints of the courtly Arthur of the romances occur, but only through a negative depiction of an Arthur more interested in women than in battle. In Phillips' play, Arthur does not defeat the Saxons at Lincoln; rather, Arthur's former guardian, the Duke of Gloucester, leads the troops into battle dressed as Arthur, who shows up after the battle to claim victory. While Phillips is clearly trying to create a character typical of Shakespeare's history plays, he misses the mark with Arthur, who lacks the introspective complexity of even Shakespeare's weakest kings.

While Arthur is the subject of this fictional, 'newly discovered' Shakespeare play, Phillips' real interest lies in the other mythic figure at the heart of the book, William Shakespeare. This pairing of Shakespeare and Arthur makes sense-both are culturally central, legendary, yet historical figures of whom many claim great knowledge despite a lack of historical documentation to support such knowledge. In taking on such cultural icons, Phillips' novel raises interesting questions about the nature of belief and the relationship between belief and authenticity.

A struggle over authenticity becomes clear in the first few pages when the editors direct the readers to 'plunge directly into the play, allowing Shakespeare to speak for himself ' before turning to the 'very personal Introduction' offered by Arthur Phillips (ix). The two-hundred-fifty page 'Introduction' is, in fact, an autobiography in which the character Phillips endeavors to undermine the editors' claims of authenticity through his description of his relationship with his father, a talented forger with a passion for Shakespeare who possessed the only copy of the play. …

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