By Charles Matthews

Sunday, December 4, 2011

9. The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips, pp. 211-240


Arthur's editor calls, jubilant at the news that they've received their first "scholarly authentication," but Arthur likens the celebration he hears over the phone to "an office full of pigeons celebrating because they've stumbled onto a bag of poisoned corn." His editor tells him that a check will go out to him this week based on this first milestone. While he wants to tell her what he's discovered, he decides to hold off  -- maybe this scholar is just some fame- or tenure-seeker who will be overruled by others.


But he still fears that his career will be tainted by his father's forgery, and he tells Dana he wants to call off the publication. She is furious, and points out that his decision affects others as well. Glassow, for one, is likely to sue him if he doesn't publish. She asks, "Have you read it? Really read it? You didn't notice that it's about you?" He asks if she's admitting that their father wrote it, but she calls him a "chuckleheaded, whinnying, braying ass. It's about you, like a dozen other books I can think of. So either Dad wrote it for you, or he asked you to make it famous because he recognized you in it."

She reminds him of his promise to their father, and says she doesn't care who wrote it. "I've loved it since we were ten. Dad gave it to me first anyhow, you know. It's not yours to humiliate."
"If Shakespeare wrote it, then you're a dick. You're going to lose Mom a pile of money, and you will go down in literary history as that moron who couldn't tell the real thing when he read it. Or if Shakespeare didn't write it, then you're still a dick, because you're throwing Dad's love for you -- and for me, by the way, if you care -- back in his dead face.... You're the first person ever to suffer from a double oedipal complex, and one of your dads is four hundred years old."
She calls him an "ingrate" and reminds him of the time his father got Rod Carew to sign a baseball for him. Arthur replies that when he realized his father was a forger he threw the baseball away. Infuriated, she tells him that she was there when Carew signed it. Only slightly chagrined by this revelation, he persists in asking her who wrote The Tragedy of Arthur until she storms out, yelling, "Shakespeare wrote it! Dick."

Somewhat contritely, she e-mails him a few hours later to say she doesn't care who wrote it and that she doesn't want the money, but that he should still publish it and let the world decide: "What about 'A thing off beauty is a joy forever'?  He didn't say 'an accredited thing'. So let it go out into the world and make some people happy. A thing of beauty. A joy." She also predicts that even if he claims it's a forgery, people won't believe him. He'll be dismissed as a crackpot like the anti-Stratfordians.

But Arthur goes ahead and e-mails his editor, Jennifer Hershey, with his doubts: "I think we're dealing with a fake." He also offers to return the advance. But she replies that feelings of uncertainty are perfectly natural under the circumstance, and that even she has had moments of anxiety. They've had another scholarly confirmation and he should hold off on his objections. He has also sent her a jpeg of the postcard, but she says she can't make it out. And she sends him some prospective covers and promotional items.
His follow-up e-mail, in which he says, "I'm pulling out of this," receives another reply urging him to calm down and not make "a rash decision." He thinks about telling Jennifer that he wrote the play, but chickens out when he realizes it "might adversely affect my future publishing career." He ignores the phone calls he has that afternoon from her and from his agent, but decides to let Tom, the actor playing Palamon, read the play. Dana had told him about it. When Tom finishes reading it, he says, "It's a parody, right? It's not even remotely convincing. It's nothing at all of Shakespeare."

Arthur passes along Tom's opinion, and some examples of language he thinks unShakespearean, in an e-mail to Jennifer, who fires back a reply in which she points out that all of the instances Tom mentions are found in Shakespeare concordances. And he admits that she is right about Tom's objections: "his reaction demonstrated something about how a certain type of Shakespeare lover will feel at first exposure to a newly discovered work (if such a thing ever comes to light)." But he still maintains his conviction that the work is his father's forgery.

Jennifer, frustrated at his failure to return her phone calls, e-mails him again to say that she has studied the postcard that provoked his doubts and thinks it could be something other than evidence of forgery, such as "a list of research questions" to take to the library. "Don't you think he'd be on a card numbered higher than 14 if he was already writing Act III?" And she jokes that maybe Arthur forged the card. She suggests that perhaps he's frightened of what he might do if he made a lot of money from the publication of the play, that he might decide to stop writing: "I've always been curious about what happens to ambition and ambitious artists when suddenly money becomes no problem."

But he sticks to his guns: "We're done. I am really sorry, but it's done."


Arthur reflects on Shakespeare's reputation and whether it's inflated:
(A) We judge him the best. (B) He has survived all this time. But, really, what if it's the other way around? Is he who we've got because he's good, or do we judge him good because he's who we've got? We now find it hard to enjoy any of his contemporaries very much, but at the time, the same people liked the other guys', too. We've lost the ability to appreciate those others, because we've been too obsessively appreciating him.
Jennifer sends him the results of a stylometry check at Claremont College that says the play "scores the closest match to core Shakespeare since the foundation of the Clinic." But Arthur continues to regard it as a forgery, and to worry over the problem of why his father would go to such lengths to forge the play and then foist it off on him.

Scholarly authentication continues to arrive, and the editors at Random House put up a map on the wall in which they place red pushpins each time an authenticator checks in: "The red tide seeped across the map, the swath of a flying epidemic of credulity flu." But it only depresses Arthur:
Was that my father? A man so gifted with empathy -- specifically, empathy for a glover's son born four centuries earlier -- that Shakespeare experts read his fake and scratch their heads? If my father wrote The Tragedy of Arthur, then we have an unpalatable portrait of the artist with a capability for extraordinary love and understanding who was unable to direct any of it toward me.

Finally, a letter arrives from the general counsel for Random House threatening suit for breach of contract if Arthur doesn't deliver the "manuscript of the annotated play, you Synopsis and Introduction, as well as supervised access to the original copy of the play for photographic reproductions by the Delivery Date as specified by the contract."


"I was cowed" by the letter from Random House's lawyer, Arthur admits. So he decides to bide his time, sure that vindication will come from a scholar persuasive enough to halt publication. Jennifer sends him the negative opinions, including "a few very well argued essays against Shakespeare's authorship of the play," but they are few and far between. And she sends him a photograph of the map, which is a sea of "authenticating red."

He receives a letter from one of the scholars who visited him and his father, in which she talks about the tendency to dismiss as not-Shakespeare any play that one dislikes. She likes The Tragedy of Arthur, however, and is "happy to add my name to the authentication process." This to Arthur is reason enough to doubt the entire authentication process: "A science dedicated to proving that all the bad ones were by someone else?" He remembers how Dana's enthusiasm for the play itself when she was eleven years old persuaded her that "It has to be" Shakespeare, and how pleased their father was when she said that. But Arthur applies the same logic to his dismissal of the play as a fake: "It should be intolerable to any of you who actually love Shakespeare that Arthur has made it this far. Arthur is bad. The play is bad. It is bad. Don't read it."

Finally the forensic report comes in: There is "nothing out of period in the materials or production of this document." Though the authors of the report "stress that this is not a certification of authenticity," they say that it passes all the tests. Jennifer e-mails him, "I honestly can't believe there's anything to doubt here. Do you still? I think it is impossible that a forger could fool all these tests." But for Arthur it's only an example of the "smug certainty of modern science's all-seeing eye," and he insists "there is always a way to fool a test.... I don't know how my father did it, but he did it. If I'm the only one who can see it, that doesn't make me wrong. He did it."

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