Desire lurks at the heart of The Tragedy of Arthur. It is only fitting, considering how desire (for self-improvement, power, lust, love, zealous faith) occupies the center of so many tragic narrative webs. It is a tale of Arthur, who shares many biographical details in common with the author, who has a long, complicated relationship with his father, a master forger. It is a story of a reader's befuddlement regarding William Shakespeare and the enduring power that this playwright and poet has had for the past four centuries. It is this and much more, as the story feels so brutally direct and "human" that it is easy to overlook in the beginning Phillips' narrative sleight-of-hand that makes the direction of this tale so fascinating to read even when the "tragedy" becomes apparent to readers.
The core narrative deals with Arthur's decades-long relationship with his father, his sister, and their lionizing of Shakespeare. Shakespeare's themes, quotes, and literary approaches are thrust at Arthur at a young age. He wants to rebel against this overwhelming project of first his father and then later his sister, but he is weak, easily succumbing to these two stronger-willed individuals, with some self-loathing resulting from it. As Arthur develops his love-hate relationship with Shakespeare after his father's lengthy absences due to his prison terms for forgery, a complex portrait emerges of the father:
"I will not try to excuse my father's acts. His acts were his own. His mistakes, crimes, defeats: these were his own. As Shakespeare wrote, I would not have it any other wise, and that is surely how my father felt. But I will say this of his life: he believed that the world could be transformed completely, if only occasionally, if only for one person at a time, but that was something, and that was worth it. There are times when I consider some of his greatest creations, his most selfless creations, and I feel cowardly in comparison when I think of what he hoped to achieve in his work.
"A novelist tries to capture a person in a phrase (a walk-on character), or a paragraph (a minor character), or a page (a major character), or a whole book (for the protagonist), but how to describe an entire life of a real person? Not in snatches of action or frame-frozen descriptions, but over a whole life? My father eludes my abilities. I can write a paragraph about him for you, but it seems to miss everything, even though it's all true:
"As far as an accurate portrait of my father, I don't know if that paragraph is him or not. This writerly method fictionalizes him, cuts off so much of him – so many contradictions, extenuations, annexes, chapters – that what remains is only a shadow of him, a shadow of his hopes, and a shadow of his griefs. It seems impossible to descend through all the layers of him at even a single moment or at a single decision. I consider even one of his pedestrian crimes, and I ask myself, What motivated him? His worst moments can be explained by: his wonder-lust philosophy, bitterness, pride in his craftsmanship, mere habit, inevitability, simple greed and thoughtlessness, genetic selfishness bordering on criminality, love. I can hardly pull the burrs away to find the man underneath..." (pp. 218-219 e-book edition, Ch. 37)Arthur's father certainly looms large over this complex narrative. He has not only shaped, willy-nilly, both Arthur and his sister, but he has willed to Arthur something that is either the find of the century or his greatest forgery ever: a weathered, battered copy of a "lost" play of Shakespeare's, The Tragedy of Arthur. It is within this play, which is reproduced in whole as the second half of the book, that Phillips explores so many issues: the influence of Shakespeare's diction on our own; the ways in which readers idolize writers and raise them above the level of mere mortals in the case of Shakespeare and a rare few others; human desires for things to be good even when they are not "true" or "just"; the power that myths have even in today's more secular age on motivating us; and the binds that tie us together may chafe us to the point of distraction. It is almost surprising that Phillips manages to weave these weighty and sometimes disparate elements into a cohesive whole; by every right, this novel should have collapsed under the weight of its pretensions.
Yet it succeeds and it does so in spectacular fashion. In Arthur and his sister we see not just the parallels with Shakespeare's characters, but also of our own lives. In the father is a mirror of not just Iago but also every storyteller. The details of Arthur and his family's lives are well-drawn and the foibles and ruinous relationships resound with readers because they echo, without full replication, themes explored by other talented writers such as Shakespeare. Yet Shakespeare himself is not the origin nor the terminus of these recastings of human dramas in written form, a point that Phillips-as-Arthur makes several times in the narrative. Shakespeare is but an embodiment of our own steaming mess of emotions and actions; the English-speaking nations needed a figurehead for these and Shakespeare fit the bill admirably. In the play itself, so many narrative quirks of Shakespeare are used to create a version of the Camelot tale; it feels "authentic" because of the weight of accumulated cultural inheritances despite our knowledge that it must be "fake." This dissonance itself recasts the narrative in a new way, one that makes the details of Arthur's family and their lives all the more meaningful, because even artifice can serve nature despite itself. The Tragedy of Arthur ultimately is one of those rare novels where the layers of deceit and metacommentary feel "authentic" and "real" and that even in the (belated) realization that our culturally-trained reader preconceptions have been turned against us the story still possesses a gravitas to it that makes it a memorable reading experience.