Random House is proud to present this first modern edition of The Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare.

Until now, Shakespeare’s dramatic canon comprised thirty-eight or thirty-nine plays, depending on whose scholarship one trusted and whose edition of the Complete Works one owned.  Thirty-six plays were included in the so-called First Folio of 1623, published seven years after the playwright’s death.  Two more—collaborations, likely delayed for copyright reasons—were added to subsequent collections.  A thirty-ninth play, Edward III, has over the last two decades garnered increasing academic support as having been written, at least in part, by Shakespeare, but was published only anonymously in his lifetime, and is by no means universally acknowledged as a Shakespeare play.  A further two works—Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won—are referred to in historical documents, but no copies of either have survived.  Another dozen or so plays—the so-called Apocrypha—do exist and are debated, but none have acquired anything approaching scholarly consensus as being the work of Shakespeare.

The Tragedy of Arthur was published as a quarto in 1597.  Its cover’s claim that the text is “newly corrected and augmented” implies a previous version now lost, but this 1597 edition was, as far as we now know, the first play to be printed with Shakespeare’s name on the title page, pre-dating Love’s Labour’s Lost by one year.  Likely banned, or at least judged politically dangerous and therefore excluded from the 1623 Folio, only one copy of that 1597 quarto has so far been discovered.  It was not found until the 1950s, and has been held in a private collection until now.  The Tragedy of Arthur is, therefore, the first certain addition to Shakespeare’s canon since the seventeenth century.

The story it tells is not the legend of Camelot most readers know.  There is no sword in the stone, no Lancelot, no round table, no Merlin or magic.  Instead, Shakespeare seems to have worked from his usual source for history plays, Raphael Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland.  The resulting plot is something more like King Lear, a violent argument of succession in Dark Ages Britain.  But, like Lear, it is about so very much more, and the white heat that courses through the whole structure is Shakespeare’s unmistakable imagination and language.

Many people have worked with great dedication to make this book possible.  It could not have come to pass without the academic leadership of Professor Roland Verre, who has overseen the research and tests that have confirmed the play’s authenticity and William Shakespeare as its sole or primary author.  Professor Verre submitted the text to a battery of computerized stylistic and linguistic examinations, solicited the critical opinions of his peers on three continents, and supervised the forensic study of the original document’s paper and ink.  Academic opinion has steadily grown in volume and certainty over the past year, and there is now no notable voice in Shakespearean studies who questions the authenticity of The Tragedy of Arthur.

Our gratitude extends equally to dozens more professors of English language and literature, theater directors and dramaturgs, linguists and critics, historians and Shakespeare experts who formed our ad hoc advisory board, as well as the specialists in ink, paper, and printing led by Dr. Peter Bryce, and a legion of researchers, editorial assistants, and legal experts.  The contributions of Professors David Crystal, Tom Clayton, and Ward Elliott (whose Claremont-McKenna Shakespeare Clinic conducted the stylometry tests) demand particular recognition.

This first edition comes with a unique appreciation by a Random House author, Arthur Phillips.  As his family played a central role in bringing the play to light and corroborating its authenticity, he was invited to write a brief introduction to this monumental work, even though he certainly does not claim to be a Shakespeare expert.  He also edited and annotated the text of the play.  Professor Verre has kindly amended some of Mr. Phillips’ notes.

Despite Phillips’ importance to the work’s discovery, we would suggest that general readers plunge directly into the play, allowing Shakespeare to speak for himself, at least at first.  Then, if some background is helpful, look to this very personal Introduction or to the many other commentators sure to be available soon.


The Editors

Random House/Modern Library

January, 2011




Title page of the 1597 quarto of The Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare.  The quarto measures approximately 7.25 x 5.125 inches and is 76 pages.

“W.W.” is William White, who printed several other works by Shakespeare, including Love’s Labour’s Lost (Q1), Richard II (Q4), and I Henry IV (Q5). 

Photograph © 2011 Arthur Phillips.  Reprinted by permission.


Arthur Phillips

 internationally bestselling author of

Prague, The Egyptologist, Angelica, and The Song Is You


If you do not feel the impossibility of this speech having been written by Shakespeare, all I dare suggest is that you may have ears—for so has another animal—but an ear you cannot have.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, about Henry VI Part One


Shakespeare never did this.  He never did this.
The Blow Monkeys, “Don’t Give It Up”


Believe me, my friends, that men, not very much inferior to Shakespeare, are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio.

Herman Melville


Phillips himself evidently wanted to carry the performance outside the walls of the playhouse.

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World


I have never much liked Shakespeare.  I find the plays more pleasant to read than to watch, but I could do without him, up to and including this unstoppable and unfortunate book.  I know that is not a very literary or learned thing to confess, but there it is.  I wonder if there isn’t a large and shy population of tasteful readers who secretly agree with me.  I would add that The Tragedy of Arthur is as good as most of his stuff, or as bad, and I suppose it is plausible (vocabulary, style, etc.) that he wrote it.  Full disclosure: I state that as the party with the most money to be made in this venture.

As a cab driver asked in an ironic tone when I told him I was contractually bound to write something about Shakespeare, “And what hasn’t been written about him yet?”  Perhaps this: although it is probably not evident to anyone outside my immediate family and friends, my own career as a novelist has been shadowed by my family’s relationship to Shakespeare, specifically my father and twin sister’s adoration of his work.  A certain amount of cheap psychology turns out to be true: because of our family’s early dynamics, I have as an adult always tried to impress these two idealized readers with my own language and imagination, and have always hoped someday to hear them say they preferred me and my work to Shakespeare and his.

Even as I write that—as I commit it to print and thereby make it true—I know it is ridiculous.  I cannot really feel that I am in competition with this man born four hundred years to the day before me.  There is nothing in the cliché description of him as the greatest writer in the English language that should have anything to do with me, my place in literature, the love of my family, my own “self-esteem,” to use an embarrassing word stinking of redemptive memoirs.  I should be glad for the few words of his that I like, and think nothing of the rest, ignore the daffy religion that is the world’s mad love of him.  (Or, in the case of those troubled folk who don’t think he wrote Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, equally mad disbelief.)

I am not by nature a memoirist, any more than Shakespeare was.  I am a novelist.  But if you are to understand this play, its history, and how it comes to be here, a certain quantity of my autobiography is unavoidable.  Nobody comes off particularly well in the story of how we arrived here, except perhaps my sister, Dana.  I certainly am not the hero.  But I do have the legal right to occupy this discovery space outside the play for as long as I wish.  No one may lay a red pen on me here, so if these turn out to be the last words of mine that Random House ever publishes, they will at least be true, and the record will be set straight, if only for a while, before it rewarps.

I will perform my contractual requirements— history, synopsis, editing, notes—but I have other things to say as well, and a few apologies to issue, before I creep off stage.



My parents lived together until Dana and I were six.  Memories of that early age are untrustworthy except as a measure of the predominant emotion at the time.  When I summon images of the four of us together, I recall happiness: pervasive, aromatic, connected to textures and weather and faces.  (I suspect those faces are not real memories, exactly.  They are memory-animations of old photos I have, or imagined snapshots of old stories I’ve heard.)

My father emerges first as a man who conquered night, who never slept.  This is not an uncommon idea children have of their parents: kids at five, six, seven, have to go to bed when the adults are awake, and they wake to find those adults already in action.  If you do not live with them again after this age, parents will survive in memory as creatures magically above sleep.  But my father was even more a figure of the night than that.  I remember several occasions when he woke me in darkest black (perhaps only nine pm, but by then a five-year-old is already deep beneath a wash of delta waves), excited to share some great news or show me some once-in-a-lifetime event.  “Wake up, bear!  Bear!  You have to see this, wake up!”

I was asleep, my beloved solar system book fallen on my chest, my fingers still voyaging over its black and starry cover.  I was asleep, and then I was in his arms, flying from my bed, awake and asleep and back and forth, and then I was out on the wet lawn, still cradled in his arms, barely able to peel open my crusted eye, to look, at his whispered urging, into his tripodded, heaven-angling telescope’s eyepiece.  And there I saw Saturn, my favorite: ringed, unworldly, a giant top among specks of dust.  And then he turned some dial, fiddled somehow with the telescope’s lenses and settings, and he brought the view much closer, and I could see a dozen of Saturn’s inhabitants, moving back and forth in their excitement, taking turns looking through their telescope, gesturing at what they saw, up in their own sky, amazed at the sight of me, trying to get my attention.

And then I was brought back to bed, and he kissed me back to sleep.

A little boy wakes from that and—first thing—consults with the most reliable and trusted person in his world for clarification.  I asked my twin sister if she had had any dreams, as we often had the same ones in those suggestible days.  “No, because Dad woke me up to see Saturn,” Dana replied, mattter-of-factually.  “I love the rings.  It’s the best planet.  Except for Pluto.”

“No, Saturn’s better.  Did you see the people?”

“Yeah, but Pluto’s better.”

This was as hotly as Dana and I ever disagreed about anything in those days.

Pancakes shaped like Saturn, pancakes shaped like Mickey Mouse, which, my father said, could occur accidentally.  He would dramatically cover his eyes while dribbling the batter, and sure enough, every fifth pancake (we were five years old) was unmistakably Mickey.  I used to take pleasure, even at that provably selfish age, of donating my Mickeys to Dana, and every time she thanked me with real amazement.  I recall, too, a pancake with the uncanny silhouette-profile of my mother, placed before her with a long kiss from the chef to the top of her head.  “You’ve got butter on your nose,” he said, placing a dollop on her pancake’s left-most tip.

(I made pancakes for my own kids in my day.  Perhaps it was the Czech flour, but my repertoire consisted solely of ovals and Pollocks.  Their Aunt Dana never did any better when she visited.)

Our mother took us to an exhibit of Dad’s paintings.  She made us dress up.  I had a little bow-tie.  Dana and I were allowed to walk around on our own, soda in paper cups, hand-in-hand, and Dana and I made each other laugh with stories about each painting, Dad’s and others in the group show.  We sat on a wooden bench and watched our mother put her hand on our father’s back, his tumble-weed of black Einstein hair swaying slightly from the rotating floor fan.  We blew bubbles in our 7-Up, and I made Dana happy by making fart sounds.

“Those last group shows,” my mother reported much later.  “So depressing.”

But not for us.  My father’s increasilngly desperate and pathetic final efforts at being an acknowledged artist had no effect on me and Dana just yet.  His anger at the world’s indifference was imperceptible to us, and that is to his credit, or due to children’s natural indifference.  For us, the adult world was soda on wooden benches, paintings and stories, midnight glimpses of Saturnine astronomers, magic pancakes.  Our father amazed us and won our love not because he treated us like children, but because we thought he was treating us like adults, and adulthood was just a much better childhood.

Excerpted from The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips Copyright 2011 by Arthur Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.