The Tragedy of Arthur is a play within a novel within a mystery. Arthur Phillips and his twin sister, Dana, grew up with a love of Shakespeare imbued by their father, also Arthur Phillips, who has a fringe of "Einstein hair" and is charming to the point of seduction and shrewd to the point of brilliance. He is a con man, who paints masterpieces until he is imprisoned for it.
Then one day, the elder Phillips gives his son his greatest legacy: a previously undiscovered play by Shakespeare called "The Tragedy of Arthur." Is it a fraud? Is it for real? Is Arthur Phillips' real legacy the fact that you end up wondering what is real, what is not, and why does it matter anyway? In the end, the reader gets to judge the play on its own terms.
The Tragedy of Arthur is the latest work by one of the most acclaimed novelists working in the English language, Arthur Phillips. His previous novels include The Song Is You and Prague. Phillips spoke to Scott Simon on Weekend Edition.
On the confusing nature of having many different protagonists named Arthur, Phillips says, "Well, you've got confusing and you've got enchanting. It's certainly not meant to be confusing. I don't think it should confuse anyone if they plunk themselves down and read it. It should be a lot of fun."
The father Arthur Phllips tells a fantastic story: In 1958, he was hired to make a replica of a valuable painting for a rich man in England, and in his library, he finds a 1597 play credited to Shakespeare, "The Tragedy of Arthur." He takes it, and doesn't consider it a theft because the guy didn't know that he had it. The father's story is hard to believe, at best, but Phillips the author argues that it is possible.
"I think if anyone's going to find a new Shakespeare play that we haven't noticed before, that's not an unlikely place to find one," he says. "People in the 1600s and 1700s would buy up these quartos, essentially one play in paperback, and when they had eight or 10 of them they would stitch them together into a collection, and then they would hand-write a table of contents. That's a hard thing to keep organized over the centuries. Quartos are fragile; quartos don't necessarily make it for the long haul. Most of them are lost."
But, of course, the man who "discovers" the lost quarto is a con man.
"It's certainly a plausible story, by the way, or he wouldn't be a very good con man," Phillips jokes. "On the other hand, he is a terrible con man, as he ends up in prison for most of his life. So maybe this is the one time he is telling the truth."
The virtuoso achievement among others in Tragedy of Arthur is that Phillips actually produces the play — rather than just referring to an undiscovered work of Shakespeare, he writes out all five acts.
"Yes, The Most Excellent and Tragical History of Arthur, King of Britain," Phillips explains. "Apparently published in 1597 based on an earlier, now lost edition, is included as the endpoint of the book."
The work, as good of an imitation as it is, doesn't sound exactly like Shakespeare's best. But as Phillips points out, not everything Shakespeare wrote was genius.
"I'm thinking I would like to see it put on stage sometime," he jokes. "And the marquee out on 42nd Street would say, 'It's better than Henry the 6th!' So, one of the things I wanted to get at in the book was ... I'm a big fan of Shakespeare, obviously, but he's not above serious discussion as someone that we admire as a great writer without having to talk about him as a deity beyond our human criticism."
One of the most humorous aspects of the novel is the back-and-forth between Arthur Phillips, the son, and the editors at Random House — which also happens to be the real Phillips' publisher, so they are in on the joke — and the way that the editors, even when told that the play may not be real, barrel ahead with the project.
"Let's just say for a moment that I turned up at Random House and said, 'Look what I have here, it's a 1597 Shakespeare play that no one has ever heard of before,'" Phillips says. "I think everyone knows what that would be worth. So everyone in the novel goes to great lengths to authenticate it and prove what it is and what it might not be. But when the professors are lining up to say it's real, and the ink and paper specialists say it's real, one guy jumping up and down saying 'My father is a con man' is worth ignoring."
Phillips' book raises the question of whether or not, at the most basic level, a fraud can be just as good as the real thing.
"I do, in fact, care whether a book labeled a memoir is verifiable," Phillips says. "I do actually care whether something put forth as a Shakespeare play is a Shakespeare play."
So in the end, does Arthur Phillips, the con man, create something of value?
"Yes, I am ... what's the term, aesthetic empiricism? I'm one of those guys," Phillips says. "I think if it's good and you like it, then it's good and you like it. You should stick to 'it's good and I like it' no matter what people say, no matter if the write person wrote it at the right time. So I'm of the position that if you like it and you think it's good, then by definition, it's good."