Word Wednesday – Groundling



My current Shakespeare obsession has rekindled my fascination with words and where they come from. Which seems appropriate, given that a good number of them come from Shakespeare.

He wrote at a time when the English language was in a dizzying state of growth, leaping on new words with abandon and giving old words new meanings. Shakespeare made the first recorded use of over 2000 words, so I can only imagine he looked on this state of affairs with some glee. He invented new words and turned old ones on their heads throughout his career (Hamlet alone gave audiences around 600 words they had never heard before).

Some 800 of Shakespeare’s new words survive today – everything from antipathy to well-read, critical to zany, assassination to vast. He had a particular genius as a phrase-maker. Where would the language be today if we were not able to play fast and loose, go down the primrose path, budge an inch or beggar all description?

I think I’m going to have plenty of material for my Word Wednesdays!

I will start with the word ‘groundling’.

O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious, periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise.

Hamlet 3.2.8-13


The word first appeared in English in a 1601 translation of Pliny’s Natural History, at roughly the same time as Hamlet was written. Groundling here meant a small fish that lived in mud at the bottom of the water.

We first hear the word groundling in a theatrical sense in Hamlet, where it refers to those who paid a penny to stand in the yard in front of the stage. There they stood, like so many fish gaping up at the actors.

Hamlet is not very complimentary, but his words could be taken in a variety of ways – a nod to the well-off in the galleries who could reassure themselves they weren’t groundlings, a satire on aristocratic pretensions, an invitation to banter.

The name has stuck, as the groundlings continue to gather in front of the stage. A standing ticket at Shakespeare’s Globe in London costs £5, and there are no lack of takers.

I have to admit, I prefer a seat.






The Chandos Portrait – Probably Shakespeare

chandos portrait shakespeare

The Chandos Portrait, thought to be painted by John Taylor, is the only portrait of William Shakespeare painted from life. Probably.

There is something marvellously enigmatic about William Shakespeare. His words continue to enthral after more than 400 years, yet the man himself remains in the shadows. Perhaps that is the way it should be – if anyone should let his words do the talking, it is Shakespeare.

Nowhere is this elusiveness more apparent than in the topic of Shakespeare’s portrait. There are a number of paintings which may represent him, but none of them enjoy watertight confirmation.

I visited the National Portrait Gallery in London to see the painting which is the most likely candidate to have been painted from life, the Chandos Portrait. The Gallery’s very first painting, donated in 1856, it hangs at the beginning of the Jacobean gallery, next to a portrait of Ben Jonson, and I have to say, I’m convinced.

The man depicted is thoughtful, slightly dishevelled and he is wearing an ear-ring. A poet, indeed. There is something of both the poet and the canny businessman in his expression. This was a man, you can’t help but feel, who knew what he was doing.

The face resembles the most famous depiction of Shakespeare, the etching by Martin Droeshout the Younger that forms the frontispiece of the Folio of 1623. That etching looks a little strange, with various elements out of proportion, as though the artist did not deploy an experienced hand. It was however authenticated a true likeness by Ben Jonson, so was likely to have been taken from an earlier portrait painted during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

The Chandos Portrait has an interesting provenance. It was, said the 18th century antiquarian George Vertue, painted by John Taylor, actor and painter. It belonged to Sir William Davenant, godson and possibly the biological son of Shakespeare (according to the gossipy John Aubrey), before being sold to the actor Thomas Betterton. It then entered the collection of the Dukes of Chandos, hence the name.

Barring the discovery of an explicit reference to the painting dating to Shakespeare’s lifetime, we’ll doubtless never know for sure whether the painting depicts him. But that’s all right – the mystery just adds to his legend.


Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon-style

William Shakespeare and Joss Whedon? Of course!

I finally caught up with Joss Whedon’s film of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing this week, and what a charming romp it was. I have fond memories of the Kenneth Branagh version, and I really can’t say which is better. They are certainly very different, the one taking place in sunny, medieval Tuscany and the other in black and white twenty-first century California, which merely underlines the extraordinary adaptability and resonance of Shakespeare’s work.

A home movie with a difference

After months of toiling on one of the biggest films ever – Marvel’s The Avengers – director Joss Whedon had a short break, which he decided to fill by filming a Shakespearean comedy, in his home. As you do.

Filmed in black and white, in modern dress, the film has a distinct film noir look about it, tinged with a touch of nineteen-thirties screwball comedy. Amy Acker’s Beatrice and Alexis Denisof’s Benedick bring to mind Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, with their crisp repartee and elegant physical presence. With their ‘merry war’, Beatrice and Benedick have always been the scene-stealers of Much Ado, and that doesn’t change here.

The plot concerning Hero (newcomer Jillian Morgese) and Claudio (Fran Kranz), their love undermined by the machinations of the treacherous Don John (Sean Maher), is a darker tale. Maher, it has to be said, makes a far more convincing ‘plain-dealing villain’ than Keanu Reeves, bless him. It was Maher’s first time playing a villain, a fact that prompts Whedon to observe incredulously on the DVD commentary: “He is far too handsome to be a good person.”

Joss Whedon always gives good commentary.

The film grew out of the long-standing Shakespeare readings that took place at Whedon’s home over the years, attended by many of the actors who have come to be associated with him, a sizeable number of whom are in the film. An added treat for Whedon fans is recognising their favourites from Whedon’s various shows. Look, there’s Fred and Wesley from Angel, and yes, the bumbling Constable really is Captain Mal.

Ah, Nathan Fillion.

They all show a natural flair and fluency with the Elizabethan language, reinforcing a long-held belief that Shakespeare is easy to understand when performed by actors who really ‘get it’.

Everyone is good, but the standouts for me were Amy Acker’s Beatrice and Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry. Yes, Captain Tightpants steals the show as the idiotic constable who thinks he’s brilliant.

Now, I think I need to re-watch Firefly. Again.


Photo Friday: The Mosaics of Aquileia

romulus remus

The Lion of St Mark, the symbol of Venice, is ubiquitous in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. There’s no getting away from him, it seems, even if he is looking a little weather-beaten in places. Yet there’s a quiet, unassuming town not far from the sea that has gone its own way when it comes to commemorating empires. In Aquileia Romulus and Remus reign supreme, reminders that Aquileia was once one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire.

aquileia mosaic

Aquileia was founded in 181 BC, a bastion against the barbarians to the north and the east. Its strategic position, for both war and trade, meant it soon became wealthy. It may be in ruins now, the port overgrown, the columns in the forum a poignant reminder of what once was, but you can still see something of that wealth today in the basilica, and it comes as a delicious surprise.

aquileia mosaic

The basilica, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the Saints Hermagora and Fortunatus, originally dates to the fourth century, an ambitious structure erected after the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, when Christianity was legalised. The current building is a majestic Romanesque-Gothic hybrid, but that is not its main claim to fame. No, it’s the mosaic floor which takes your breath away. Rediscovered in the early years of the twentieth century, the floor consists of 760 square metres of mosaics. It is the largest Paleo-Christian mosaic in the western world, and the prime reason why Aquileia has acquired a place on the World Heritage List.

aquileia mosaic

The subjects of the mosaics are wide-ranging – animals, birds, fish and biblical scenes. In the centre are a selection of portraits, possibly of the donors who paid for the mosaic back in the fourth century. The colours are as fresh as they were nearly two thousand years ago – I’d say they got their money’s worth.

aquileia mosaic

Your participle’s dangling – “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Word Crimes

This greatly appealed to the grammar pedant in me.


What I love about Twitter

AKA #Hashtags are the new black

street art reka london I will admit it took me a little while to get the hang of Twitter. Then I heard it described as a ‘virtual cocktail party’, and the penny dropped.

Mingle, people. Mingle!

Yes, this introverted wallflower can network. Believe me, it came as a surprise. Thinking about how this unlikely turn of events came to be, I have narrowed it down to two elements, which have helped me, both as a writer and as a marketer.

An exercise in brevity

As someone who tends to the concise, the 140-character limit on Twitter is both a relief and a challenge. Waffly, padded writing is one of my pet peeves, and on Twitter there’s no room for any of that nonsense, even for those so inclined. At its best, Twitter keeps things short, sweet and to the point.

The challenge is to be interesting within the constraints of the format, to convey meaning clearly. Even if you’re not a fan of social media, I’d recommend Twitter, if only for the practice is gives in clarity.

Twitter puts the ‘social’ in social media

Twitter is not a broadcast medium. Its strength lies in its ability to allow interaction, to let people take part in chats and conversations. For all that it seems a vanity project – look at me, Mum! – Twitter works best when users promote others’ work, tweeting and retweeting and replying. It may seem unduly philanthropic, but people do reciprocate. And you do get to ‘meet’ people you might not otherwise have met.

Which means, as the aforementioned introvert, I’ve found it a great way to network. I’ve replied to people on Twitter that I would have needed to have downed a few stiff drinks to approach in real life, and even had them reply. It still makes me shake my head in wonder. So, there you have it. What are your favourite things about Twitter? I’d love to know!


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