By Charles Matthews

Friday, November 25, 2011

3. The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips, pp. 42-73


Arthur claims to be "CONTRACTUALLY BOUND" to write a synopsis of the play, but his reluctance shows in his decision to do it piecemeal: one act at a time. So this section begins with a summary of the first act of The Tragedy of Arthur, which he regards as no "more stilted or formulaic than other Shakespeare first acts."

Then he returns to the 1904 edition of the play, with whom Dana was fascinated. Their father, he tells us, "challenged her to prove its authorship to him, and she rose to the task" with her examinations of the play's vocabulary and style. They also discussed possible reasons why it was not included in the First Folio.

Meanwhile, in her adolescence, Dana discovers that she is a lesbian, accepting "it without a blink of shame or regret." Arthur's "love life was far more 'normal' than hers, more hormonal, less romantic, alternately sullen and grubby, swollen and grabby." But he also maintained a desire to be "perfectly joined, soulmated beyond the possibility of any rupture or misunderstanding" with her, though he insists that "this is not a report of rank incest."

Dana goes to Brown, where in the first six weeks, he tells us she transforms "into a ferocious-looking lesbo-pug." Arthur attends Harvard, where in his junior year he writes a play about apartheid that is staged. By then, Dana has "transformed herself again and again, leaving behind her bull-dykery for punk rock and had now become a flower child, a retro pose that fit her least well of all her looks so far." She attends the play but tells him afterward, "It wasn't like a play. It was just like ... like a tender for bids on your penis." He isn't offended, whereas when he told his father about the play, his "fainter uninterest had brutalized me."


Arthur analyzes his relationship with his father as part hatred: for his arrests, which he came to see as disregard for his family and as an "apparent preference for prison over my company."
In parallel, there was my love for him and my admiration for his work and for his theory that, as a doctor makes the world healthier or a lawyer makes it more precise, he made the world more wondrous. This belief must have had -- the shrinks and I are in concord about this -- some effect on my becoming a novelist.
He recalls his embarrassment when he was fifteen and his father was sent to prison "for a grubby little tax dodge." His father's friend Chuck Glassow had him forge coupons for his grocery-store chain that allowed Glassow to claim lower revenues than he actually had. Glassow was sentenced to five years and served two, Arthur's father to ten and served seven. Arthur "took it out on Doug Constantine, my on-again, off-again best friend since I was six years old and the son of Ted Constantine, persistent prosecutor of my father." Later, he would blame his father for the breakup with Doug.


A summary of Act II begins this section, and Arthur observes of the dialogue between two characters: "Does it prove anything that they refer to a dog named Socrates and that my father supposedly had a Scottie named Socrates when he was a boy?" He wonders about the statistical likelihood of a man who had a dog named Socrates discovering a Shakespeare play referring to "a dog of the same name." But he also puts forth the possibility that his father "lied about having a dog named Socrates."

The summary also introduces a character: "Arthur's childhood friend Constantine, the Earl of Cornwall." But in commenting on this coincidence, he admits that "Holinshed's Chronicles (the Renaissance book of history that Shakespeare used for so many plays) tells the story of Arthur and Constantine, so it's probably on the up-and-up." He also reveals that when they were in college, Dana "confessed that she had squealed about the crop circle to Doug Constantine, back when we were ten. She had kept her mistake from everyone for eight years, and I cycled between awe at her discretion, shame at her indiscretion, and anger that she had let Dad think for all those years that I was to blame."

He also learns that Doug Constantine was the first boy Dana ever kissed, and it was then that she told him the truth about the crop circles. In the play, Arthur marries "Constantine's sister, rejecting a better offer from the French. In real life, Constantine French-kissed Arthur's sister before she rejected him, and then Constantine's father reported Arthur's father to the sheriff of Nobles County."
If my father did not distort our family life to forge this play, I am left with the uncomfortable possibility that we have lived a distorted version of Shakespeare's imagination, which, ridiculously enough, is what one Shakespearologist claims: we are all the Bard's inventions.
Arthur expresses his anger at Dana for letting their father think for so many years that Arthur was the one who leaked the crop-circle story, but she insists, "He never thought it was you." He finds her insistence on this point irritating, but notes that her resistance to what he sees as the truth about their father "was a blister waiting to burst."


For Dana does rebel against their father when she is fifteen: "She became an anti-Stratfordian." She comes home from the library with books by the Marlovians, the Baconians, and the Oxfordians, and writes letters to her father in prison insisting "that his lifelong idol was a fraud and a loser (implicitly like him)." Her obsession grows so acute that her grades begin to suffer, "which is why I outperformed Dana in school, though she was, by any real measure, quite a bit smarter than I."

Dana's theory (not quite as clever or witty as those of Joyce or Wilde) posits that the plays were written by two people: the Earl of Oxford and a Jewish moneylender. They had discovered that they were both poets, but the earl's position prevented him from participating in the grubby world of the theater, and the young Jew was socially unacceptable, so they came up with a plan to use the middling playwright William Shakespeare as a front. Shakespeare can have all the fame and money he can milk out of their plays. All he has to do is sign a secret document attesting that he did not write them.

The earl and the Jew become lovers and competitors, each trying to outdo the other in inventiveness. And they make a wager: They will place £200 each in an interest-bearing account, and in 2014, "the 450th anniversary of their invented playwright's birth," their descendants will add up how many of each playwright's works were selected for royal command performance:
And the closest direct descendant of the greater writer -- the more royally demanded writer -- would collect the money and reveal (with that long list of Shakespeare's signed confessions as proof) that the greater half of the work of the upstart crow was written by either Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, or a confused and secretive bisexual Jew named Binyamin Feivel (wrote the sexually secretive religionless Jewish girl from Minneapolis).
She explains the supposedly autobiographical nature of the sonnets as a competition between Oxford and Feivel, each of whom calls the other "Will": "these are two lovers writing to each other, not one poet writing to two lovers."

But at some point, Dana imagines, perhaps after the death of the earl in 1604, Shakespeare realizes how damning it would be if the document in which he admits he hasn't written the play should come to light, so when the time comes to sign it, he throws it in the fire. This leaves it up to the two families to make the case for their respective plays. Binyamin Feivel, she posits, "had converted and changed his name to Ben Phillips. (My religionless sister imagined herself as the heir to Shakespeare, and found in Judaism the trick to do it.)"

The difficulty of deciding on what constitutes a royal command performance increases over the years, especially with the advent of the movies: "Elizabeth II went to cinema premieres to see Olivier's Henry V and Branagh's Henry V, but what about her DVD rentals." But Dana does her best to calculate: "By 1985, with twenty-nine years until payday, the score stood nearly tied at 1,401 performances for plays be the Earl of Oxford and 1,384 for those by Ben Phillips, our ancestor, author of the unrecognized and never-commanded Tragedy of Arthur and -- Dana could prove textually -- of her other favorite Shakespeare plays as well."

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