Word of the Day: Open

August 15, 2011 in Word of the Day

This is the first part of a trio of articles, inspired by the name of the organisation behind Open Shakespeare: The Open Knowledge Foundation. Each post will take one of the words behind the OKF and see how Shakespeare used it, comparing that against the modern organisation’s moniker. The hardest word, with one hundred and fifty-eight entries, comes first. There is one gleam of hope however: the Open Knowledge Foundation, at least, defines precisely what it means by open:

> A piece of content or data is open if anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike.

Unfortunately for me, Shakespeare would have understood about half of the words in the above sentence in the same way that we do. He never uses the word “data” (despite its possession of those Latin roots so attractive to the poet elsewhere) and the concept of wider reuse and redistribution of any work is far from thinkable in a cultural era dominated by the Stationer’s Company. Instead, “open” for Shakespeare often has a rather more concrete meaning:

> STEPHANO. Come on your ways: open your mouth; here is that which will give language to you, cat. Open your mouth: this will shake your shaking, I can tell you, and that soundly [gives CALIBAN a drink]: you cannot tell who’s your friend: open your chaps again.

This scene, from the inebriation of Caliban in The Tempest, is just one of many involving the verb in its sense of “moving from a closed position”, be it mouths (“chaps”), doors, or anything else on stage.

Perhaps more curious than this banal example is the use of open as an adjective, where it is sometimes associated with vulnerability. This is often also a criticism of our modern, technological sense of the word ‘open’: if everything was such, would not plagiarism and artistic penury run rampant? Of course, the devotee of openness replies that it promotes community, and that ‘open’ is hardly a synonym for unprofitable. This very website is living proof of this fact, harvesting annotations and promoting the study of Shakespeare worldwide. In our modern, internet era, the publisher, the software designer, or the artist that decides to go open finds themselves in an international community and support network, and thus in a far better position than these few hapless usages of the adjective ‘open’ in Shakespeare’s works:

1) Salisbury, contemplating the moral and political landscape in King John
> Murder, as hating what himself hath done,
> Doth lay it open to urge on revenge.

2) Two gentlemen concerned that walls might have ears when it comes to discussing the fate of Katherine of Aragon in King Henry VIII
> We are too open here to argue this;
> Let’s think in private more.

3) Anne, hoping something nasty will happen to the future king, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in Richard III
> Either, heaven, with lightning strike the murderer dead;
> Or, earth, gape open wide and eat him quick,
> As thou dost swallow up this good king’s blood,
> Which his hell-govern’d arm hath butchered!

Peculiarly, one might add that all these Shakespearean associations of openness and vulnerability listed here involve politics and government. For more on the topic of open government in our own time, I strongly suggest a visit or at least a following of the OKF’s own Open Government Data Camp, due to take place in Poland on 21st October. I guarantee a more positive outlook on the idea than Shakespeare’s images of the “hell-govern’d arm”.

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