The Tragedy of Arthur 
by Arthur Phillips.
Duckworth, 368 pp., £16.99, September 2011, 978 0 7156 4137 8
Show More
Show More

It’s easy to think of literary forgers simply as greedy people who are good at making bits of paper look old. But there is nothing simple about the history of Shakespearean forgery. It began more or less at the height of the late 18th-century mania for everything Shakespearean – life, works, documents, laundry lists, anything. Some of it was driven by a desire to make a quick buck out of gullible bardophiles, but most of it had more complex origins. This was true of the most spectacular case of Shakespearean forgery. In 1795 a teenager called William Henry Ireland pretended to have found a series of documents connected with Shakespeare. His father, Samuel Ireland, loved making trips to Stratford to pick up dubious Shakespeareana. Indeed he loved everything to do with Shakespeare a lot more than he loved his son. So William Henry set out to give his dad a few treats. Contracts with players, a profession of Protestant faith in Shakespeare’s own hand, even a letter to the bard from Queen Elizabeth herself flowed from his ready quill. And once Ireland had sorted out a supply of ink and techniques for making paper look old, why not write versions of King Lear and Hamlet which omitted the awkward bawdy scenes? Why not even compose a whole new play in Shakespeare’s hand?

Ireland’s highest-risk venture was the discovery of a ‘lost’ historical drama by Shakespeare called Vortigern and Rowena. This was eventually performed before a sceptical audience at Drury Lane. Ireland’s play has the typical features of pastiche. His characters always sound like Shakespeare, and usually like Shakespeare’s biggest characters. When Queen Edmunda goes mad she sounds at first like Lear ripping off his vile lendings (‘And have I need of these vile rags? Off! Off!’), then she segues into Ophelia’s mad scene. Ireland works more with scissors than with paste: he regularly amputates a phrase just before he quotes Shakespeare verbatim. So his mad queen doesn’t quite echo Ophelia’s ‘Sweet ladies, good night, good night.’ Instead she says: ‘Good night, sweet! Good night!’

Like most forgers, Ireland did not always know when to stop. When his father’s ownership of the intellectual property in the manuscripts his son had discovered was questioned, William Henry concocted a deed of gift that bequeathed all of Shakespeare’s papers to one of his father’s ancestors who ‘savedde Shakspeare’s lyfe fromme drownynge whenne onne Thames’ – Ireland’s orthography was soundly of the Olde Englishe Tea Shoppe variety. This, he hoped, meant his dad would benefit from the publication and performance of Vortigern. But once heavyweight Shakespearean scholars, including the pitiless Edmond Malone, began to cast doubt on the authenticity of the manuscripts, Samuel came under suspicion. He wrote reproachful letters to his son asking for an explanation. When William Henry confessed that he had forged the documents and the play, Samuel didn’t believe him. So the son published his Confessions, which offered a full and apparently frank story about how he came to fake Shakespeare. All for love, he claimed; though he was suspiciously keen to record how much cash was made out of Vortigern.

Arthur Phillips’s The Tragedy of Arthur is a topsy-turvy postmodern version of poor William Henry Ireland’s story, complete with a slightly different relationship between a Shakespeare-loving father and his son, and a fake early Shakespearean history play called The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain, which is reproduced, with scholarly notes, at the end of the book. It begins, though, as a fairly orthodox novel about a man called Arthur Phillips and his twin sister, Dana. The presence of boy/girl twins warns us to watch for traces of Twelfth Night, and the fact that their mother is called Mary Arden makes it slightly surprising that they live in Minneapolis rather than, say, Stratford, Ontario. Their father (also called Arthur), who describes himself as ‘gently used. Slightly foxed. Warmly inscribed’, keeps ending up in jail for a variety of scams. His main job is to produce copies of paintings to be displayed for insurance purposes in the place of their originals. But he also transforms other pictures ‘temporarily, from anonymity to Rembrandtivity’, and is a master of pure actes gratuits of forgery, such as making crop circles without apparent interest in material gain.

The father is obsessed by Shakespeare, as is his daughter. She briefly rebels by becoming an Oxfordian, with the additional tweak that she thinks the Earl of Oxford collaborated with a Jewish moneylender to write the plays. Meanwhile Arthur the son, our hero and narrator, rebels in a more conventional way by hating Shakespeare and his father. He uses the injunction from the Sonnets to ‘make sweet some vial’ as part of an advertising campaign for a sperm bank. Nonetheless he is under Shakespeare’s spell. He falls for his sister’s lover, a Dark Lady called Petra, and is unwittingly trapped in a Shakespearean plot, a sort of Thirteenth Night, in which, pinned down by a beagle, he is seduced by Petra and so effectively conceives his sister’s child, while the sister apparently dies but doesn’t really. As the epilogue to Vortigern put it, ‘You’re all, whate’er you think, his characters.’ Or as The Tragedy of Arthur puts it, ‘I am left with the uncomfortable possibility that we have lived a distorted version of Shakespeare’s imagination.’

Anyway, the forger father summons his difficult and angry son to see him in jail. He directs him to the key of a safe-deposit box. Here little Arthur finds the only surviving 1597 quarto of The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur. His sister had been given a supposed edition of this play from 1904 for her birthday some years before, complete with photographs of family members performing in it. Arthur’s father confesses this was a forgery, but insists that the quarto is the real thing, which he lifted from an aristocrat’s library in a house where he had been plying his trade as a Rembrandtiser. Arthur, with ‘at least a facsimile of healthy scepticism’ – and ‘facsimile’ is quite good in this context – sets up a big publishing deal. Because it’s the only copy he doesn’t have to go to the lengths of forging a story about Shakespeare bequeathing it to his ancestors, since, we’re told, the owner of the unique copy owns the intellectual property in the play. The quarto is subjected to ultraviolet light and to the ultra-violence of stylometric tests, all of which it passes, though a weary sceptic might point out that the facsimile of the title page here prints the title in red ink, which is all wrong for a play from the 1590s. But this is postmodernity, so the error is probably deliberate, or it isn’t, or it doesn’t really matter because, hell, what is this authenticity thing anyway? It’s a facsimile which inspires a facsimile of healthy scepticism.

Arthur gradually comes to suspect that the play is his father’s cruel joke at his expense, but as the result of a string of letters from the legal department of Random House, which the novel lovingly reproduces complete with headed notepaper in all their hectoring glory, he carries through his contractual obligation to publish the play with notes and an introduction, both of which appear in the novel. I was expecting the play itself, which comes at the end of the book, to be awful. It’s actually quite fun, and good enough to serve the purpose of the fiction, in which the publishers and Arthur himself need a play which sounds enough like an early Shakespeare history play to let them believe that it really is an early Shakespeare history play. The play ti-tum ti-tum ti-tums its way through the reign of King Arthur and his battles with the Picts, and comes up with some quite enjoyable scenes before it ends with its hero stuck in the mud of the Humber, killed by Mordred. At its start the randy Prince Arthur, hiding in Wales like the princes in Cymbeline, has it away with a shepherdess, and you get the standard forger’s trick of amputated Shakespearean phrases, usually from the tragedies (‘That night our gate did croak and murder sleep’). There’s also a quite good prototype Dogberry in King Arthur’s Master of the Hounds, who discusses the lineage of kings in comparison to the breeding of dogs – dogs, Dogberry. Geddit? A weft of ‘clues’ about authorship weave through the play: ‘What king forged I?’ Gloucester asks of Arthur, whom he brought up, while at the end of the play Arthur declares: ‘I am no author of my history.’ The play genially hands out self-conscious chuckles, sometimes even without nudging you in the ribs as it does so.

Accompanying the play are two contesting sets of notes. One set is ascribed to an earnest Shakespearean scholar called Roland Verre, whose name implies that in him scholarly verity meets Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the real author of Shakespeare if you believe the idiots out there. Verre is brought in by Random House to counter Arthur’s sceptical annotations on what he has come to believe is his father’s forged play. The scholar’s notes can’t quite equal the full splendour of genuine pedantry, but we pedants do spend years perfecting our art, and Verre is not a bad pastiche of a pedant. The fictional Arthur meanwhile offers several notes which support his belief that his father wrote the play. The word ‘embers’ prompts a note saying that it calls to mind his father’s visits to the Embers Restaurant in Minneapolis, which Google tells me actually exists. The line ‘An if they so believe, then so I did’ prompts another note: ‘That’s my dad at the quill there, no question.’ There’s nothing new about knowing winks from the participants in a forgery: at the first performance of Vortigern, John Philip Kemble in the title role hammed up the line ‘And when this solemn mockery is o’er’, and repeated it several times, to titters from his audience. Phillips’s game is to create a Shakespearean feel, then give you a false note, then offer multiple explanations of the false note. Notes on false notes, if you like, are his equivalent of solemn mockery.

Some nails get hit smartly on the head. Where a scene seems a bit wrong the scholarly annotator Verre will say that just because Shakespeare does something only this once that’s no evidence that the play isn’t by Shakespeare, since Shakespeare very often did things only once. This kind of argument was once the source of some pain to me as I wrestled with ways of excluding from the canon (and therefore not having to edit, which added some zeal to my desire to disattribute) a string of not very good poems which had been ascribed to Shakespeare. It was sometimes said in all seriousness that Shakespeare could do anything once, so a word unattested elsewhere in Shakespeare could be evidence of Shakespearean authorship. Perhaps the fact that a poem was really bad could be grounds for an ascription, because even Shakespeare could be bad just the once. There are some quite plausible augmentations of Shakespeare’s vocabulary in the play itself. For instance, there are no raspberries in Shakespeare, despite the fact that they are found in the OED from 1602, so The Tragical Historie of Arthur makes good this omission. ‘Feculent’, not in Shakespeare but a perfectly good Elizabethan word, is embedded in a characteristically overclotted line: ‘How feculent thy northern vapours stink.’ ‘Ween’ is never used as a noun by Shakespeare, and the line in which it appears here, ‘to men of vaulting ween but little wit’, is not a highlight of the play, but Shakespeare was famously ready to transform verbs into nouns and vice versa, so it’s just about bearable in a work which is asking you what the nature of ‘Shakespearean’ writing is.

But after a while the genuinely false notes in the play start to chime regularly: ‘London’s abbey’? Come off it: Westminster and London are separate cities. ‘Sir Derby’? Nah. Ever heard Shakespeare talk of ‘Sir Falstaff’? ‘Sir Stephen Derby’ is Sir Stephen to you. To redeem these slips I kept wanting The Tragical Historie of Arthur’s not quite comic pastiche to flip over into parody, and give me lines like the sublime ‘Oh, saucy Worcester, dost thou lie so still?’, which Beyond the Fringe cooked up in their Shakespeare skit ‘So That’s the Way You Like It’. The Tragical Historie of Arthur tends to substitute for the sharp savour of Lea and Perrins a dominant flavour of laborious intricacy:

I know these lineaments as if I peered
Into a glass of other years, which guards
In it past images long sith reflect.

Oh groan, groan, groan. Nor ears of cloth nor sense of brass could hear such fustian stuffs and think on Master Will.

Indeed after a bit the whole performance seems to have too much of the artful trendiness of commercial postmodernism, a literary movement in need of a name of its own, ideally a name which makes it sound like a faintly ridiculous board game. Let’s call it Monopomo. The Tragedy of Arthur is almost a handbook of this kind of pomaded and marketable postmodernism. In the game of Monopomo the rules, unoppressively enforced of course, because it’s awfully nice, don’t allow readers to experience any pleasure that is not grounded in a flirtatious frustration with an author who is always not quite far enough ahead of them. Relax and enjoy the play and you’ve been had. Feel a faint distaste for the desire to make shedloads of money out of a new work by Shakespeare and you realise that that distaste is already registered in the book, which tells you not to buy it, with a winning wink, a self-disparaging salesman’s glitter. Dislike it and the author has got there first: ‘Once you know it isn’t Shakespeare, none of it sounds like Shakespeare.’ Sit forward looking up words in a concordance and reflecting on what is un-Shakespearean in the text in front of you and you’ve become a caricature pedant.

If, like me, you actually are a caricature pedant then there’s still no escape from the game of Monopomo, because your stylistic instincts become misleading within the overall structure of the fiction. Find a false note in the play and if you’re really serious about being a pedant you have to think that this is a false note planted by the fictional author of The Tragical Historie of Arthur, the fictional Arthur’s father, to tease his son, rather than a cock-up by a real forger. It surely can’t be a sign that the author of the novel can’t quite do Shakespeare, can it? But oh no, he’s called Arthur too: is there an abyme here into which I’m being mised? And in case any Brits get all sceptical and uncool, the novel even contains an Englishman who is consulted about the play and says: ‘It’s not even remotely convincing. It’s nothing at all of Shakespeare. The texture is all wrong.’ Hey, I’m already in the book. And if you don’t like it, you’re in the book too: Arthur himself says ‘Arthur is bad. The play is bad. It is bad. Don’t read it.’ Others throw their weight behind the play: ‘These professors! Once they wager their egos, they never quit.’ Well, Phillips has got us lot right, even if he can’t quite do Shakespeare.

These merry games while away a rainy afternoon or two, and most readers will at some point or other catch themselves experiencing things they shouldn’t. If they’re at all good-humoured they’ll laugh genially at themselves rather than getting annoyed with Arthur the author. ‘How can this Roland Verre person have done such a dreadful note on the verb “tower”, which doesn’t even cite The Noble Art of Venerie, or indeed …’ I found myself thinking, before realising I sounded like the provoked don I am. But while it is an entertaining tease, there is finally something inauthentic in a bad sense about The Tragedy of Arthur. This is largely because no emotional complexity emerges through the layers of fiction and metafiction. It is a game of Monopomo all the way down. Ireland père et fils were hurt by William Henry’s attempt to give his father a new Shakespeare play. They made a little money and got a little fame, but both were disappointed and ridiculed, and their strange way of communicating with each other through the falsification of texts on the one side and the desperate desire to believe on the other finally led to hurt. Arthur Phillips’s various fictional Arthurs never feel any pain. I wanted more tragedy and less Arthur the author. William Henry Ireland described the horror of the forger in his Confessions: ‘There is something so appalling in the conviction that a man does not stand upon the basis of truth, that he shrinks with terror when circumstances appear most favourable to his wishes.’ The Tragedy of Arthur is missing terror.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences