Word of the Day: Foundation

August 19, 2011 in Word of the Day

“God save the foundation!” says the constable Dogberry to thank Leonato for a gift in Much Ado About Nothing, tactlessly treating his benefactor like an official charity. Funnily enough, Dogberry’s use of the word is not too far from that in the title of our parent organisation, the Open Knolwedge Foundation, which has served as inspiration for a triptych of word of the day articles (part I & II). Foundation, in the business and organisational word means “an organization or institution established by endowment with provision for future maintenance” (Merriam-Webster), in the case of the OKF, this becomes a “not-for-profit organization”. I am not too interested, though, in the precise status of a foundation, but rather – as befits the literary bent of this series – the metaphorical resonance of the term. For, apart from Dogberry’s apposite exclamation, the word foundation is found in eight other Shakespearean speeches, many much grander than the constable’s phrase. Take Macbeth demanding to know his future from the witches, no matter what the cost, as an example:

> MACBETH I conjure you, by that which you profess,–
> Howe’er you come to know it,–answer me:
> Though you untie the winds, and let them fight
> Against the churches; though the yesty waves
> Confound and swallow navigation up;
> Though bladed corn be lodg’d, and trees blown down;
> Though castles topple on their warders’ heads;
> Though palaces and pyramids do slope
> Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
> Of nature’s germins tumble all together,
> Even till destruction sicken,–answer me
> To what I ask you.

The image of buildings falling to their foundation recurs in Venus and Adonis, Coriolanus and The Winter’s Tale. Each time the power of the description turns on the fact that ‘foundation’ stands for both origin and fundamental level, making such destruction doubly total. Yet there is a more hopeful rendering of the idea to be found too. After all, foundations should also be where things begin, as Lord Bardolph is keen to impress on the rebels of Henry IV pt II:

> LORD BARDOLPH. [...] in this great work,
> Which is almost to pluck a kingdom down
> And set another up, should we survey
> The plot of situation and the model,
> Consent upon a sure foundation,
> Question surveyors, know our own estate,
> How able such a work to undergo,
> To weigh against his opposite; or else
> We fortify in paper and in figures,
> Using the names of men instead of men;
> Like one that draws the model of a house
> Beyond his power to build it; who, half through,
> Gives o’er and leaves his part-created cost
> A naked subject to the weeping clouds
> And waste for churlish winter’s tyranny.

As many will know, the rebellion of this sequel, like that of Henry IV part I, is crushed. That said, I can still find one – albeit sentimental – example of something springing from a foundation and succeeding: Open Shakespeare itself. Given previous reflections on openness and knowledge, perhaps my thought here on the OKF should be the observation that the concept of ‘foundation’, of laying out the start of something (call it what you will: trailblazing, pathfinding, innovating…), underpins everything that this project and the OKF does. Is this in tension, though, with the hopes of creating stable, flourishing open communities? Or rather, as I personally believe, the rhetoric necessary to the establishment and motivation of such groups. The only thing certain is that when talk is no longer of founding, then the project and the OKF will have changed utterly. For now, there is much work to do: “God save the foundation”, indeed.

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