Shakespeare and the Will to Deceive
By STEPHEN GREENBLATT
Published: April 28, 2011
Somewhere buried under the floorboards of this splendidly devious novel is a real-life event. In 1794, a young Englishman, William Henry Ireland, came across something astonishing that he hurried to show his father: an old mortgage deed, with its seal intact, signed by none other than William Shakespeare.
Illustration by Christoph Niemann
THE TRAGEDY OF ARTHUR
By Arthur Phillips
368 pp. Random House. $26.
Up Front: Stephen Greenblatt (May 1, 2011)
Excerpt: ‘The Tragedy of Arthur’ (April 28, 2011)
Books of The Times: ‘The Tragedy of Arthur’ by Arthur Phillips (April 28, 2011)
From “The Tragedy of Arthur”
The young man’s father, Samuel, an antiquarian and a passionate Shakespeare enthusiast, was thrilled, and still more thrilled when from the same mysterious source — an old chest in the possession of a reclusive aristocrat who wished his identity to remain secret — his son came up with a series of further discoveries. These included contracts; theatrical receipts; correspondence between Shakespeare and his patron, the Earl of Southampton; a letter to Shakespeare from Queen Elizabeth herself; a “profession of faith” in Shakespeare’s own hand, proving once and for all that he was a good Protestant; and the playwright’s own manuscript of “King Lear.” Alerted to the news, people crowded into Ireland’s house. James Boswell fell to his knees to kiss the great playwright’s relics. Against his son’s vehement objections, the proud Samuel hurried most of these stupendous finds into print. But he held in reserve the best of them all, until they could be returned in glory to the stage where they belonged: two full-length plays by Shakespeare, both hitherto unknown, “Vortigern and Rowena” and “Henry II.”
The discoveries aroused a predictable mixture of popular excitement and learned skepticism. On March 31, 1796, Edmond Malone, the greatest Shakespeare scholar of the age, published a 400-page book examining each of the documents Ireland had printed and enumerating in numbing detail their historical inaccuracies and manifold flaws in handwriting, diction and the like. Two days later, “Vortigern and Rowena” opened at the Drury Lane Theater to a sold-out house. The audience listened raptly to the opening words of Constantius, the king of the Britons — “Good Vortigern! as peace doth bless our isle, / And the loud din of war no more affrights us” — but by the third act its mood had shifted. Whispered criticisms turned into catcalls, wags shouted rude jokes and the audience laughed so uproariously that the performance had to come to a halt until order was restored. The actors gamely limped through to the close, but the play was not performed again. Shortly thereafter, William Henry Ireland confessed that he had forged “Vortigern” and the rest of the documents. But in a strange twist, his father continued to insist that they were authentic. Disgraced and ridiculed, estranged from his son, shortly before his death he printed the plays with a preface in which he declared that neither Malone’s refutation “nor any declaration since made from a quarter once domestic to this Editor . . . can induce him to believe that great mass of papers in his possession are the fabrication of any individual, or set of men of the present day.”
The last 111 pages of Arthur Phillips’s new novel, “The Tragedy of Arthur,” consist of a five-act play, for the most part in blank verse and replete with Elizabethan diction and syntax, entitled “The Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare.” The play bears a striking resemblance to “Vortigern and Rowena.” Both are tales of ancient British monarchs, and the tangled plots in both cases are drawn from Shakespeare’s favorite historical source, Holinshed’s “Chronicles.” Both blend military adventure, political maneuvering and romantic love. And both demonstrate an uncanny grasp of certain of Shakespeare’s characteristic tics: the plumping up of some lines to fill out the syllables of the iambic pentameter; the contractions used to make other lines metrically correct; the sharing of a single line between two or even three speakers; the taste for difficult words; the staging of glittering figures of legend who interweave the portentous and the ordinary.
This signature style, captured by someone who deeply grasps how Shakespeare would sound if an assiduous imitator had mastered all his tricks without commanding a shred of his genius, is precisely the effect of Phillips’s play:
This dandled king was ne’er a martial lord,
His brows do frown on those who counsel arms.
He longs for heaven’s peace brought down to earth,
And does beguile himself to credit too
That England’s enemies should find delight
To sit and mazèd wonder at his arts,
Whilst all our forces till and sell and sleep,
And will in battle’s heat abrook no pains.
There is no playing for laughs; the wit of “The Tragedy of Arthur” is its deadpan seriousness. In the manner of modern Shakespeare editions, the words “dandled,” “mazèd” and “abrook” are glossed by an editor — identified as one Roland Verre — who has been hired to help the common reader understand the text’s meanings and savor its felicities. Hundreds of notes scrupulously document the Bard’s occasional anachronisms and contemporary allusions, signal his borrowings from Elizabethan sources, weigh difficult cruxes, tease out multiple puns and offer options for performance. The whole enterprise is unrelentingly faux-Shakespearean from the opening hunt scene — “Arthur, by noble right your prey now waits” — to the closing couplets: “Raise sepulchres for both great queen and king / And for their souls, and ours, raise voice and sing.” Exeunt.
We are dealing then not with parody but with something else: fraud. This is a full-length fake. It is a surprisingly good fake, too. I was unable to detect any obvious blunders in language. Shakespeare would probably never have written a line quite as bad as “And does beguile himself to credit too,” but much of “The Tragedy of Arthur” actually sounds as if it could have been written by the author not of “Hamlet,” to be sure, but of “The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York.” This is no trivial achievement; it is the work of a very gifted forger.
That forger is the subject of Phillips’s novel — or rather, of the mesmerizing 256-page “introduction” that precedes the text of “The Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare.” The introduction is written by a character named Arthur Phillips, a 46-year-old novelist who bears such a striking resemblance to the real novelist named Arthur Phillips that it seems pointless to try to differentiate them, and who chronicles the life of his father, who also happened to be named Arthur Phillips. The elder Phillips, who has recently died, spent most of his adult life behind bars for a succession of frauds: forged pictures here, forged grocery coupons there, all seemingly indistinguishable from the real thing and yet all doomed to failure. The novel then is the account (reminiscent of Geoffrey Wolff’s memoir, “The Duke of Deception”) of an excruciatingly unstable childhood, one haunted by a charming, gifted and utterly unreliable parent with a penchant for criminality.
The form of Phillips’s novel — what in Shakespeare’s time would have been called its “conceit” — is an argument between the author and his publisher, Random House. The novelist, whose previous works include “Prague” and “The Song Is You,” has contracted to write an introduction to a newly discovered tragedy by Shakespeare. Phillips has come to believe that the play is another of his father’s frauds, but Random House, which has paid handsomely for the rights and stands to make a fortune if it is Shakespeare’s, is insisting on the terms of the contract. Having spent his life struggling to keep himself from being corrupted by his father’s schemes, Phillips is using the introduction to assert his moral integrity by exposing the forgery. But the forgery is so impeccably good that he can only expose it by providing a convincing account of his father’s wiles and his own lifelong resistance.
That resistance includes healthy skepticism about the overheated cult of Shakespeare that his father has attempted to inculcate in him and in his twin sister, Dana. Nothing that Phillips Sr. tells the twins can be taken as straightforward truth; no promise he makes is securely kept; no solemn assurance is worth a shred of trust. But irrepressibly imaginative, the master forger has managed to draw both of his children into his magic circle of fraudulence and wonder. Though wiser and more balanced than her brother, Dana clings to her belief that “The Tragedy of Arthur” is the real thing. The doubting Arthur is not willing to be taken in, but in his introduction to the play his father has fobbed off as Shakespeare’s, he discloses the devastating extent to which his own psychological life — his deep, unresolved ambivalence toward his father, his failed marriage, his relation to his beloved sister and to his sister’s lesbian lover, whom he recklessly seduces — is bound up with varieties of deception. The epitome of his tainted inheritance, as he himself comes to realize, is his vocation. For the novelist’s art is a cunning ability to lure the reader into treating counterfeit bills as if they were current. And this particular novel — a fictional memoir posing as a fraudulent introduction to a forged play — is a spectacular instance of the confidence game. It is a tribute to Arthur Phillips’s singular skill that his work leaves the reader not with resentment at having been tricked but rather with gratitude for the gift of feigned wonder.