Arthur Phillips’ new novel is more triumph than tragedy, a clever, funny literary deceit that skewers everything in its path — scholars, Shakespeare lovers, anti-Stratfordians, family dynamics, the publishing world, bookish pretensions, even the author. It also slyly tackles some pointed questions about what we consider art and why, and if a rose by any other name would indeed smell as sweet. Yes. That’s the sort of wonderful novel this is: It dredges up every familiar line that ever lodged itself in your consciousness.
The Tragedy of Arthur is structured as an introduction to a lost Shakespeare play written by a selfish, wounded, profoundly petty Arthur Phillips who shares many — but hopefully not all — the traits of the actual man. There’s a play, too, at the end; it’s not so interesting or well executed as the rest of the book, but it’s also easy to skip or skim, should you lack curiosity about Phillips’ ability to mimic the greatest playwright of all time.
This narrator Arthur — who, like the real guy, has written four novels entitled Prague, The Egyptologist, Angelica and The Song is You — would disagree with that last sentence. He is not exactly in awe of the Bard; in fact, he sort of hates him. “If it didn’t have his name on it, half his work would be booed off the stage, dismissed by critics as stumbling, run out of print,” he sneers. “Instead we say it’s Shakespeare; he must be doing something profound that we don’t appreciate.” Don’t even get him started on Harold Bloom’s theories.
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