Read the play first. That's what the preface by "The Editors" says, and although it emerges that they have their own reasons for recommending you bypass the 250-page "introduction," it's still sound advice. If you're familiar with the rhythms of Renaissance drama, it reads fairly quickly; if not, feel free to skim a little. In this case, the play is not the thing. It's a charming pastiche, and there are a few lovely passages, but by and large it is (intentionally, one assumes) as minor as the authentic early histories, and one wonders if the novel might not have been better served by including less of it.
When the play has reached its promised end, flip back to the introduction, where you'll find the real story. Its protagonist, Arthur Phillips, shares the name of the novel's author, and certain details of biography, but of course that's part of a literary game, and would quickly become dull if the book wasn't interesting in others. Fortunately, Phillips weaves both a satisfying story about parents, siblings, and the search for identity and a wise, witty meditation on the way Shakespeare's reputation has led to such cultural eccentricities as the authorship debate, Harold Bloom's bloviations on the invention of the human, and fiercely contested battles of attribution.
Separately, these agendas would collapse: the story of the fictional Arthur's troubled relationship with his con artist father would become the kind of navel-gazing upper-class angst novel some reviewers have dismissed it as, and the Shakespeare commentary would feel too intellectual and cold, suffering what a possibly fictional reviewer of one of the real Phillips' previous books called "a curious absence of empathy." Together, the two strands, with the help of the narrator's voice, wryly self-deprecating yet aware of the impossibility of truly selfless memoir, make for compelling reading: as rich in unlikely yet fascinating plot twists as any of Shakespeare's plays, with just the right amount of realistic detail and irony to keep it from slipping into bathos or academic exercise.
Above all else, The Tragedy of Arthur is a reminder that ideas and emotions remain inextricable. The fictional Arthur thinks Shakespeare is an over-praised writer, and makes what seem like fair arguments for that position. But this rejection of Shakespeare is also a rejection of his unreliable, capricious father; as Arthur's twin sister puts, in a speech that is perhaps too thematically blunt, "You're the first person ever to suffer from a double oedipal complex, and one of your dads is four hundred years old." Likewise, the academic specialists who pronounce for or against the play's authenticity offer specific claims, but at heart their belief is based on something intangible, on that sense of Shakespeare's fingerprint that every reader of the poet-playwright knows and few if any can describe. Who is right, about Shakespeare's merit, about the play, about a flim-flam father's love? Like any good post-modern novel, The Tragedy of Arthur abjures answers, but deserves praise for the dazzling way it poses the question.