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The English imagination

Its qualities are, of course, everywhere apparent in Shakespear’s plays but in such a rare and refined form that they often pass unrecognised

The English imagination


The enchantment which the English garden has cast upon poetry and prose is manifest in the works of nearly all the great poets. Chaucer extols the virtues of the simple daisy; violets scent the poetry of Shakespeare. “In what foreign literature”, asks Ackroyd, “can one gather such handfuls of flowers — through the cowslips of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ to the daffodils of Spencer?”

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“Albion” is full of interesting anecdotes such as the one relating to Thomas Mallory, a soldier who was present at the siege of Calais in 1436. He inherited an estate but quickly lapsed into a career of violence, theft and extortion. He broke out of several prisons but couldn’t find his way out of Newgate prison where he died in 1471. In prison he wrote the entire epic of the legendary King Arthur which closed with the words, “Pray for me that God send me good deliverance”. Ackroyd remarks, “It is fortunate that we do not expect our greatest authors to live virtuous lives, since this thief, blackmailer and ruffian has produced the one work of real poetic value in the whole field of Arthurian fiction.”

The stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table have haunted a thousand years of English literature and English art? Ackroyd elucidates that Arthur represents blood kinship and tribal fealty for the heterogeneous and muddled race of the English. The true significance of King Arthur is that by not dying, by being perpetually reborn, he represents the idea of the English imagination. The Arthurian legend is the great national fount of myth and symbol.

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The qualities of English imagination are of, course, everywhere apparent in Shakespeare’s plays but in such a rare and refined form that they often pass unrecognised. In Ackroyd’s estimation: “It says much about the antiquarian genius for example, that all of Shakespeare’s plays set in England are also set in the past.” Shakespeare judged the native mood and so brought the early sequence of his history plays to the stage in London, a city obsessed with the past. The plays became immensely popular and so did the author. The history plays are themselves a re-enactment of the mystery plays of earlier centuries which, with their ritual and pageantry, satisfied the public appetite for spectacles. Shakespeare’s debt to medieval drama — as indeed to the chronicles of Hollinshed and others — is various and profound.

Read the first part: The English Imagination 

Ackroyd draws our attention to another important feature of Shakespeare’s art: the mingling of ‘high’ and ‘low’, king and fool, prince and gravedigger, commander and solider, scholar and buffoon. Shakespeare ignores the ‘unities’ as defined by Aristotle in favour of a mixed mode borrowed directly from the English medieval drama. His plays move fluently from farce to pathos, comedy to tragedy, while all the time shifting from theatrical pageantry to intense soliloquy. “This is one of the characteristics of Shakespeare’s art — that high and tragic matters evoke low and farcical conclusions, almost as a principle of life itself.”

 Ackroyd remarks, “It is fortunate that we do not expect our greatest authors to live virtuous lives, since this thief, blackmailer and ruffian has produced the one work of real poetic value in the whole field of Arthurian fiction.”

More than any other dramatist Shakespeare is the poet of ‘dreams and visions’. One cursory glance at his plots bears this out. In the island of ghosts and spirits he summons Ariel and Titania, Oberon and the witches of Macbeth. Ghosts also wander through his tragedies and histories, and his last play, The Tempest, is surrounded by visionary enchantments. Ackroyd writes: “His characters in extremity see humankind as an hallucination or phantom where ‘life’ is but a walking shadow, it is the melancholy vision of the land lost in mist, populated by fairies, witches and the like imaginary person.”

Quite a few of Shakespeare’s plays have a melancholy ending. The most powerful passages of his poetry flow with the music of loss and transience. Prospero’s exquisite speech in the Tempest that turns the illusion of reality into illusion again, ends with

“…These our actors

(As I foretold you) were all Spirits and

Are melted into thin Ayre”

Peter Ackroyd is of the view that in the context of Shakespeare we enter a highly charged and rarefied area of English imagination which can only be understood by example. He quotes Mathew Arnold:

“No People are so shy so self-conscious,

so embarrassed as the English, because

two natures are mixed in them, natures

which pull them in such different ways.”

Mathew Arnold was referring to the mingling of Celtic and Germanic inheritance to which he adds the observation that the English have no fixed, fatal, spiritual sense of gravity. Ackroyd maintains that Arnold’s vocabulary cannot be faulted for his generalisations upon this mixed constitution of the English nature. He goes on to point out that “the mixture grows everyday much to the delight of those who understand the inclusive nature of English itself: its name once more is Shakespeare.”

In the year 2000 Shakespeare was named as the dominant figure in the previous thousand years of English history. Ackroyd offers two excellent reasons for the ‘bardolatory’. One is that Shakespeare possessed ‘small Latin’ and less Greek’ which suggests that he was not in any sense an intellectual and the distrust of intellectualism runs very deep within the English sensibility. Secondly, the fact that Shakespeare earned a great deal of money and that he owned property in London and Stratford and was, on a small scale, a successful speculator affords a great deal of satisfaction to even those Englishmen who have never read a line of his work. “His being is so fluid that it can acquire the shape of a nation, his personality so little known or understood that it can be endlessly reinterpreted.”

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Ackroyd maintains that the English being a pragmatic and practical race, the history of their philosophy is empirical and not speculative. The reverence for the past and the affinity with their natural landscape — the native hills, the native forests and the white cliffs of Dover join together in a mutual embrace which is syncretic and addictive.

He concludes that of the English imagination there is no certain description. English art, drama and literature is characterised by an informality and liveliness and melancholy that seem decidedly English in spirit. The love of fantastic detail, too, animates them as well as a passion for the celebration of grotesque and the ridiculous. This, Ackroyd asserts, “represents defiance of the divine order which consigns humankind to misery in this world and possibly damnation in the next. In the world of illness pain and poverty what other response is there but mad laughter?”


Zia Mohyeddin

The author is the president and CEO of National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA)

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