In offering a novel that incorporates an entire five-act tragedy purporting to have been written by Shakespeare, complete with scholarly annotations, Arthur Phillips is writing in a tradition of Shakespearean imitation, parody, burlesque, and travesty that extends back to the playwright’s own time. To give but a few examples, Shakespeare’s contemporary Francis Beaumont parodied lines from Henry IV Part One in The Knight of the Burning Pestle and from Hamlet in The Woman Hater only a few years after those plays were written. Ben Jonson and his collaborators have a melancholy if laconic footman called Hamlet in Eastward Ho! (1605). In 1699 Colley Cibber, introducing his radical adaptation of Richard III, wrote, “I have done my best to imitate [Shakespeare’s] Style, and manner of thinking.”
Soon after this Lewis Theobald wrote his Double Falsehood (1727), which he claimed to have based on a lost manuscript of a play called Cardenio written by Shakespeare in collaboration with John Fletcher. Late in the eighteenth century, the young William Henry Ireland perpetrated a long string of forged Shakespearean documents that included two complete plays, Henry II and Vortigern and Rowena; Richard Brinsley Sheridan put on the latter at Drury Lane with the great John Philip Kemble in the leading role. (It was booed off the stage.)
The nineteenth century saw an outburst of travesties of Shakespeare’s plays both in England and in America. John Poole’s Hamlet Travestie (1810) anticipates Phillips by imitating not only the text of Shakespeare’s play but also the notes of commentators. In her mad scene Ophelia speaks of “a rope of onions”; Alexander Pope wishes to emend this to “a robe of onions,” but Dr. Johnson comments:
Rope is, undoubtedly, the true reading. A rope of onions is a certain number of onions which, for the convenience of portability, are, by the market-women, suspended from a rope: not, as the Oxford editor ingeniously, but improperly, supposes, in a bunch at the end, but by a perpendicular arrangement.
And he adds:
For the hints afforded me in the formation of this note, and for those contained in the note upon pickled mutton, I am indebted to a lady celebrated at once for her literary acquirements, and her culinary accomplishments.
More recently, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Wars of the Roses (1964) included some fourteen hundred lines of fake Shakespeare written by the codirector, John Barton. Richard Curtis—author of Four Weddings and a Funeral—composed a foulmouthed Skinhead Hamlet (1982). Gary Taylor has written a conjectural reconstruction of the lost play Cardenio, performed in New Zealand and elsewhere, and Robert Winder’s novel The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare (2010) fills a gap in the canon of Shakespeare’s history plays by including within its narrative an entire imitation Shakespeare play on the life of Henry VII. Stephen Greenblatt and Charles Mee have collaborated on a play inspired by the idea of the lost Cardenio that includes passages of pseudo-Shakespearean verse, and as I write the Royal Shakespeare Company is performing another reconstruction of Cardenio, written and directed by Gregory Doran.
All this forms part of the background to Arthur Phillips’s wonderfully intricate, Nabokovian novel The Tragedy of Arthur, composed in the form of an edition published (like the novel) by Random House of a previously unknown Shakespeare play that has the same title as the novel. The flyleaf lists works “also by” both Shakespeare and Phillips. A preface allegedly written by the publisher’s editors proudly proclaims that the play had been published in 1597 in an edition surviving in only a single copy that was “not found until the 1950s, and has been held in a private collection until now.” Thus it is “the first certain addition to Shakespeare’s canon since the seventeenth century.”
The publishers acknowledge the assistance of a (fictional) scholar, Professor Roland Verre (his surname seems to glance at that of Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, who is the principal current candidate in the authorship stakes), and of a number of real-life Shakespeare scholars including David Crystal, “the world’s leading expert in Shakespearean linguistics”—who will appear as a character in the book when he flies in from Wales “to study The Tragedy of Arthur in my living room”; Tom Clayton of the University of Minnesota; and Ward Elliott, director of the Claremont Shakespeare Clinic, which is currently at the center of computerized Shakespearean authorship studies. The publishers explain that they have invited the novelist Arthur Phillips, whose “family played a central role in bringing the play to light and corroborating its authenticity,” to write “a brief introduction to this monumental work, even though he certainly does not claim to be a Shakespeare expert.” Phillips is allegedly also the editor of the play’s text and, along with Verre, the writer of the annotations.
After the preface comes a photograph of a totally convincing mock-up of the 1597 title page:
MOST EXCELLENT AND TRAGICAL HISTORIE OF ARTHUR,
King of Britain.
As it hath beene diuers times
plaide by the right
Honourable The Lord Chamberlaine His Seruants.
Newly corrected and augmented
By W. SHAKSPERE.
Imprinted by W.W.
for Cutbert Burby.
W[illiam] W[hite] and Cuthbert Burby did in fact print and publish plays by Shakespeare.
Running to 256 pages, the “brief introduction” exceeds in length even the most self-indulgent introductions to current editions of Shakespeare. As the general editor of two of these series I can say categorically that had it been submitted to me as an introduction to a genuine Shakespeare play it would have been returned to its author for drastic revision and abbreviation. Its length is explained in part by the fact that it is a first-person narrative in which Arthur Phillips, the actual author of the novel (who was born on April 23, the date celebrated as Shakespeare’s birthday—could this be what attracted him to a Shakespearean theme in the first place?), poses as the fictional novelist Arthur Phillips who has much in common with the real-life novelist of that name. (The surname, as a quotation from Stephen Greenblatt’s 2004 biography Will in the World printed as an epigraph reminds alert readers, is that of a genuine member of Shakespeare’s acting company.)
The narrator Arthur has a twin sister, Dana, and the pair were born less than an hour apart across midnight of April 22, thus conveniently straddling two of the dates on which Shakespeare may have been born (all we actually have is the date of his baptism, April 26, 1564). Shakespeare himself, of course, was father to twins and according to Arthur his work “teems with twins”—a common fallacy as in fact there are only three pairs, one in Twelfth Night and two in The Comedy of Errors.
Arthur and Dana—so Arthur tells us—are the children of one Arthur Edward Howard Phillips, an artist who wakes his children in the night to have them share his pleasure in astronomy by gazing at the planets through telescopes, and who by day attempts to inculcate into them his love of Shakespeare, but who is also a con man who spends several lengthy periods in jail for forgery of various kinds. A criminal, he is nevertheless dedicated to the power of the imagination, “extolling the greatness of anyone who adds to the world’s store of wonder and magic, disorder, confusion, possibility, ‘the wizards.’” A central incident in the novel is an episode in which he takes his young twins at dead of night to a field belonging to an unsuspecting farmer where together they fake a crop circle—recalling the “quaint mazes in the wanton green” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is an expensive exploit selflessly undertaken, his son writes, “to add to the world’s store of precious possibility.”
Part and parcel of the criminal father’s paradoxical idealism is a desire to get his children to love Shakespeare. He is the proud possessor of a “little red hardcover” edition of a play called The Tragedy of Arthur allegedly published in 1904 as having been written by Shakespeare; inside it is a faded photograph (duly reproduced) of the narrator’s grandfather appearing in a school production of the play and looking, as the narrator admits, like a youngster playing an admiral in a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera. This book bears inscriptions to the grandfather and, at later dates, to the senior Arthur and to Dana. Somewhat suspiciously for a late reprint, no other copy appears to have survived.
The father succeeds in convincing Dana about the merits of the play and she tries to pass on her enthusiasm to her brother by reading to him an allegedly stirring battle speech spoken by Prince Arthur in the play to which they have unique access. It begins:
Who waits for us within, fell Englishmen?
This Saxon pride set sail o’er Humber’s tide
And then conjoined to Pictish treachery
For but to cower, spent and quaking-shy,
Portcullised fast behind the walls of York,
As guilty lads will seek their mother’s skirts
When older boys they vex come for revenge.
This, Arthur says—however improbably—brings the scene to life for him, and “for this one moment, and then a whole afternoon, I thought Shakespeare was okay.” Otherwise, Shakespeare is a failure for him; he regards Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as “the real greatest writer in English literature.”
In her troubled adolescence Dana grows disillusioned with her imprisoned father and, out of a subconscious desire to punish him, becomes an anti-Stratfordian. Claiming to believe that the author of the works “could not conceivably have been William Shakespeare, the semieducated part-time actor/part-time real estate speculator son of a provincial glovemaker from Stratford-upon-Avon,” she concocts a weird fantasy according to which her father is descended from a Jewish moneylender’s son who wrote half of Shakespeare’s work in collaboration with Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. (A somewhat similar fiction is soon to be unleashed upon us in the shape of Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous.)
Between them the pair persuaded the actor Shakespeare to purport to be the plays’ author:
He would be slipped works to stage under his own name. He could even take them to a printer and publish them, if he wished. Whatever money he could squeeze out of this was his to keep. The renown would be his as well. The women or boys he charmed with his honeyed verses were his to bed.
But later the “confused and secretive bisexual Jew named Binyamin Feivel” reneges on his side of the bargain, converts to Christianity, and changes his name to Ben Phillips in a move by which, in a complex maneuver of plotting that I found far from translucent, his descendants—the Phillipses—would inherit a vast fortune derived from performance of his plays in the year marking the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, 2014.
As the story unfolds, the narrator steals the affections of a German woman who dislikes Shakespeare (from her beer-swilling bardolatrous boyfriend), has torrid adventures with her in Venice, embarks on a writing career, marries a Czech woman, becomes father to—you guessed it—twin boys, seduces his sister’s gay lover, and (like the real Arthur Phillips) writes four novels.