The Tragedy of Arthur
by Arthur Phillips
Random House, 368 pp., $26.00
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 …