A faux preface -- "Random House is proud to present...." -- precedes the faux introduction to the faux Shakespeare play. It asserts some of the basic faux facts: that the play in question "was published as a quarto in 1597," that it was "the first play to be printed with Shakespeare's name on the title page," that it was "Likely banned," and that this accounts for its failure to be included in the 1623 folio, that the tests affirming its authenticity have been conducted by on "Professor Roland Verre," and that "there is now no notable voice in Shakespearean studies who questions the authenticity of The Tragedy of Arthur." It also suggests that one read the play first, and then go back to the "very personal Introduction," "a unique appreciation by a Random House author, Arthur Phillips."
The preface's steering-away of the reader from the "very personal Introduction" to the play itself is of course a ruse, since the very first thing the novel's Arthur Phillips (to be distinguished from the novel's author Arthur Phillips) does is to tell us that he has "NEVER VERY MUCH LIKED SHAKESPEARE," and to tell us that the book is "unstoppable and unfortunate." He has been propelled into the project by his "father and twin sister's adoration of his work," but underlying his distaste for Shakespeare is a certain amount of jealousy: He has "always hoped someday to hear them say they say they preferred me and my work to Shakespeare and his." (Notice that the jealousy is both personal and professional.) He is irked by "the daffy religion that is the world's mad love of him," and also by the "equally mad disbelief" of the anti-Stratfordians.
Narrator Arthur (again, as distinguished from Author Arthur) has a twin sister named Dana. Their parents are split up when they were six years old, but one of his early memories of his father is of being awakened to look through his father's telescope at Saturn, where he saw "a dozen of Saturn's inhabitants" looking back at him. The next morning, skepticism has crept in, so he asks Dana if she had had any dreams. No, she tells him, because their father woke her, too, to look at Saturn, which she says is "the best planet. Except for Pluto." When he asks if she saw the people, she says, "Yeah, but Pluto's better."
Their father started reading Shakespeare to them when they are six, but only Dana took to it, and was reading Shakespeare for herself within the year. The significance is that "this was the first time Dana and I did not agree about something important." (The disagreement over Saturn vs. Pluto was minor.) But then their father is arrested and convicted -- he doesn't say here what for, but we learn that it was forgery -- and Narrator Arthur tries "to read Shakespeare as a penance."
The father's incarceration is brief this time, but two years later he goes away for a longer period, and their parents officially separate. He recalls being awakened early by their mother so they can drive to a prison visit. "Forced to eat and dress as if it were a school day, I crept along unwillingly, like a snail" -- one of many allusions to Shakespeare, in this case Jaques's "seven ages of man" speech in As You Like It. They present their "belated Hanukkah gifts" to him, and he remembers his disappointment that his father "wasn't shackled. I don't think I wanted him to suffer (although maybe I did; I don't underestimate children's preference for color over kindness)."
Dana's gift to her father is a recitation of Portia's "quality of mercy" speech from The Merchant of Venice. Her performance begins so exuberantly that the guards are alarmed and she has to proceed with it less energetically. Later she tells Arthur that she had meant to perform as if the room in which they were meeting their father was a Venetian courtroom, and had even picked out which guard "to look at on line 197 with a piercing 'therefore, Jew.' Of course, we were Jewish, but that didn't mean she identified with Shylock or his vindictive interpretation of the law against the gentle Gentile merchant Antonio." At the end of her speech, her father responds with Shylock's next line, "'My deeds upon my head! I crave the law." He was turning the original meaning ('don't waste time with mercy, give me what my enemy owes me') into something else ('punishment is what I deserve'). It seems to me now that it was an apology of sorts to his daughter, and an indulgence of his occasional taste for self-flagellation."
On the way back, Dana cries, but years later she tells Arthur it was "because she had just suffered a strange disillusionment, the grisly death of a childish fantasy: Shakespeare didn't crumble the walls, fell the guards, melt the system's heart."
Their father is out again in 1973, when they are nine. Narrator Arthur likens his father, Arthur Edward Harold Phillips, to the title character of The Tragedy of Arthur, "a charismatic, charming, egocentric, short-tempered, principled but chronically impulsive bastard." The narrator's father is "not bookish, as Jews in his day were meant to be, but flamboyantly literary. Not self-hating, but self-creating." His repeated incarceration he sees not as the result of criminality, but "just a market inefficiency," as when he forges a signature and a document of provenance for a painting, "transubstantiating the small picture, temporarily, from anonymity to Rembrandtivity." He tells the judge:
"The drawing was, and now again is, without much value. While it supported belief, thanks to me, its value swelled a thousand-fold, and people loved it a thousand times more. Punish me for doing it badly: all right. For getting caught: fine. For failing the world: guilty. But don't say I didn't make something!"It is 1977, and the judge sends him to jail without parole. Years later, he tells his son that "most people like the brand name, and the brand name helps them enjoy the product and opens them to trust other products."