Monthly Archives: July 2013

Honor thy Father, Michelangelo

http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/deja_vu/2013/07/family-matters.php

 

1521: Even after sculpting David and painting the Sistine Chapel’s famous ceiling, Michelangelo was still a slave to filial piety. In this letter, excerpted in our Family issue, the artist implores his father to recognize the ways in which he has been an exemplary son and caretaker:

I’m certain that never, from the day I was born till now, have I thought of doing anything, great or small, to harm you; and always all the toils I’ve endured, I’ve endured them for your sake. And since I came back to Florence from Rome, I’ve always looked after you, and you know I confirmed that all I have is yours; and indeed it’s only a few days ago, when you were ill, that I told you and promised that I would do my best never to fail you as long as I live, and this I confirm. Now I’m amazed that you’ve forgotten everything so soon. Yet you’ve tried me out these thirty years, you and your sons, and you know I’ve always thought about you and helped you whenever I could. How can you go around saying that I turned you out? Don’t you see what a reputation you’re giving me when they can say I turned you out? That’s all I needed, on top of my worries about other things, and all for your sake! A nice way you have of thanking me!

 

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Anton Chekhov Writes to His Brother

Every hour is precious

 
 

In March of 1886, at the age of 26, acclaimed Russian author and physician Anton Chekhov wrote this fascinating and honest letter of advice to his troubled older brother, Nikolai, a talented painter and writer who, despite being just 28 himself, had for many years been plagued by alcoholism to the point where he often slept on the streets, his days a blur; his notable skills as an artist largely untapped. This letter and the list it contained—eight qualities exhibited by “civilized” people—were essentially Anton’s attempt at knocking some sense into the brother he was slowly losing.

Sadly, his efforts were ultimately futile. Nikolai passed away three years later.

(Source: James Vane; Translation by Michael Henry Heim; Image: Anton Chekhov, via.)

Moscow, March, 1886

My little Zabelin,

I’ve been told that you have taken offense at gibes Schechtel and I have been making. The faculty of taking offense is the property of noble souls alone, but even so, if it is all right to laugh at Ivanenko, me, Mishka and Nelly, then why is it wrong to laugh at you? It’s unfair. However, if you’re not joking and really do feel you’ve been offended, I hasten to apologize. 

People only laugh at what’s funny or what they don’t understand. Take your choice. 

The latter of course is more flattering, but—alas!—to me, for one, you’re no riddle. It’s not hard to understand someone with whom you’ve shared the delights of Tatar caps, Voutsina, Latin and, finally, life in Moscow. And besides, your life is psychologically so uncomplicated that even a nonseminarian could understand it. Out of respect for you let me be frank. You’re angry, offended…but it’s not because of my gibes or of that good-natured chatterbox Dolgov. The fact of the matter is that you’re a decent person and you realize that you’re living a lie. And, whenever a person feels guilty, he always looks outside himself for vindication: the drunk blames his troubles, Putyata blames the censors, the man who bolts from Yakimanka Street with lecherous intent blames the cold in the living room or gibes, and so on. If I were to abandon the family to the whims of fate, I would try to find myself an excuse in Mother’s character or my blood spitting or the like. It’s only natural and pardonable. It’s human nature, after all. And you’re quite right to feel you’re living a lie. If you didn’t feel that way, I wouldn’t have called you a decent person. When decency goes, well, that’s another story. You become reconciled to the lie and stop feeling it. 

You’re no riddle to me, and it is also true that you can be wildly ridiculous. You’re nothing but an ordinary mortal, and we mortals are enigmatic only when we’re stupid, and we’re ridiculous forty-eight weeks of the year. Isn’t that so?

You often complain to me that people “don’t understand” you. But even Goethe and Newton made no such complaints. Christ did, true, but he was talking about his doctrine, not his ego. People understand you all too well. If you don’t understand yourself, then it’s nobody else’s fault. 

As your brother and intimate, I assure you that I understand you and sympathize with you from the bottom of my heart. I know all your good qualities like the back of my hand. I value them highly and have only the greatest respect for them. If you like, I can even prove how I understand you by enumerating them. In my opinion you are kind to the point of fault, magnanimous, unselfish, you’d share your last penny, and you’re sincere. Hate and envy are foreign to you, you are open-hearted, you are compassionate with man and beast, you are not greedy, you do not bear grudges, and you are trusting. You are gifted from above with something others lack: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of people, for there is only one artist for every two million people on earth. It places you in a very special position: you could be a toad or a tarantula and you would still be respected, because talent is its own excuse. 

You have only one failing, the cause of the lie you’ve been living, your troubles, and your intestinal catarrh. It’s your extreme lack of culture. Please forgive me, but veritas magis amicitiae. The thing is, life lays down certain conditions. If you want to feel at home among intellectuals, to fit in and not find their presence burdensome, you have to have a certain amount of breeding. Your talent has brought you into their midst. You belong there, but…you seem to yearn escape and feel compelled to waver between the cultured set and your next-door neighbors. It’s the bourgeois side of you coming out, the side raised on birch thrashings beside the wine cellar and handouts, and it’s hard to overcome, terribly hard. 

To my mind, civilized people ought to satisfy the following conditions:

1. They respect the individual and are therefore always indulgent, gentle, polite and compliant. They do not throw a tantrum over a hammer or a lost eraser. When they move in with somebody, they do not act as if they were doing him a favor, and when they move out, they do not say, “How can anyone live with you!” They excuse noise and cold and overdone meat and witticisms and the presence of others in their homes. 

2. Their compassion extends beyond beggars and cats. They are hurt even by things the naked eye can’t see. If for instance, Pyotr knows that his father and mother are turning gray and losing sleep over seeing their Pyotr so rarely (and seeing him drunk when he does turn up), then he rushes home to them and sends his vodka to the devil. They do not sleep nights the better to help the Polevayevs, help pay their brothers’ tuition, and keep their mother decently dressed. 

3. They respect the property of others and therefore pay their debts. 

4. They are candid and fear lies like the plague. They do not lie even about the most trivial matters. A lie insults the listener and debases him in the liar’s eyes. They don’t put on airs, they behave in the street as they do at home, and they do not try to dazzle their inferiors. They know how to keep their mouths shut and they do not force uninvited confidences on people. Out of respect for the ears of others they are more often silent than not. 

5. They do not belittle themselves merely to arouse sympathy. They do not play on people’s heartstrings to get them to sigh and fuss over them. They do not say, “No one understands me!” or “I’ve squandered my talent on trifles!” because this smacks of a cheap effect and is vulgar, false and out-of-date. 

6. They are not preoccupied with vain things. They are not taken in by such false jewels as friendships with celebrities, handshakes with drunken Plevako, ecstasy over the first person they happen to meet at the Salon de Varietes, popularity among the tavern crowd. They laugh when they hear, “I represent the press,” a phrase befitting only Rodzeviches and Levenbergs. When they have done a penny’s worth of work, they don’t try to make a hundred rubles out of it, and they don’t boast over being admitted to places closed to others. True talents always seek obscurity. They try to merge with the crowd and shun all ostentation. Krylov himself said that an empty barrel has more chance of being heard than a full one. 

7. If they have talent, they respect it. They sacrifice comfort, women, wine and vanity to it. They are proud of their talent, and so they do not go out carousing with trade-school employees or Skvortsov’s guests, realizing that their calling lies in exerting an uplifting influence on them, not in living with them. What is more, they are fastidious. 

8. They cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities. They cannot stand to fall asleep fully dressed, see a slit in the wall teeming with bedbugs, breathe rotten air, walk on a spittle-laden floor or eat off a kerosene stove. They try their best to tame and ennoble their sexual instinct… What they look for in a woman is not a bed partner or horse sweat, […] not the kind of intelligence that expresses itself in the ability to stage a fake pregnancy and tirelessly reel off lies. They—and especially the artists among them—require spontaneity, elegance, compassion, a woman who will be a mother… They don’t guzzle vodka on any old occasion, nor do they go around sniffing cupboards, for they know they are not swine. They drink only when they are free, if the opportunity happens to present itself. For they require a mens sana in corpore sano

And so on. That’s how civilized people act. If you want to be civilized and not fall below the level of the milieu you belong to, it is not enough to read The Pickwick Papers and memorize a soliloquy from Faust. It is not enough to hail a cab and drive off to Yakimanka Street if all you’re going to do is bolt out again a week later. 

You must work at it constantly, day and night. You must never stop reading, studying in depth, exercising your will. Every hour is precious. 

Trips back and forth to Yakimanka Street won’t help. You’ve got to drop your old way of life and make a clean break. Come home. Smash your vodka bottle, lie down on the couch and pick up a book. You might even give Turgenev a try. You’ve never read him. 

You must swallow your pride. You’re no longer a child. You’ll be thirty soon. It’s high time!

I’m waiting…We’re all waiting…

Yours,
A. Chekhov

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Aethelstan, Anglo-Saxon King of England

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Aethelstan was the first King of Wessex to bring together all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England. He was well educated, very pious and a collector of saints relics and manuscripts. He was also a formidable warrior. We have considerably more information about Aethelstan’s reign than other Anglo-Saxon kings due to the survival of many charters dating from his time as king and there are references to Aethelstan in foreign sources.

Aethelstan was born sometime between 893 and 895 AD. His father was King Edward the Elder, the oldest son of King Alfred the Great. His mother was named Ecgwynn and very little is known about her. There is no record of Edward and Ecgwynn being married and Aethelstan’s legitimacy was questioned during his lifetime. It is possible they were married in secret but she did live at court. She also had a daughter whose name we do not know but who would play a role in Aethelstan’s conquest of the island. Aethelstan may have been his grandfather’s favorite because Alfred gave him a scarlet cloak, a belt set with precious stones and a Saxon sword with a gilded scabbard sometime before he died. At the very least, Alfred was making a gesture marking Aethelstan as throne worthy.

Aethelstan is described as being handsome, of medium height and slim. The chronicler William of Malmesbury recorded he had seen Aethelstan’s remains and describes his hair as flaxen with gold threads. King Alfred died in 899 and Edward the Elder became King of Wessex. Either Ecgwynn died or was put aside so Edward could make a more prestigious marriage. He married a woman named Aelflaed. Aethelstan was sent to be educated at the court of his aunt Aethelflaed and uncle Aethelred in Mercia, possibly to avoid conflicts with his stepmother and her children. It is also possible Aethelstan was being chosen as the heir to the kingdom of Mercia.

Not only was Aethelstan educated in Mercia but he was trained in arms and the study of military tactics and warfare by his aunt and uncle who were both experts. He assisted them in the subjugation of the Danes and the building and defending of burhs throughout Mercia. Aethelred died in 911 and Aethelflaed ruled as virtual queen of Mercia until her death in 918. It is possible Aethelflaed expected her daughter Ӕlfwynn to succeed her. But Edward the Elder took control of Mercia upon his sister’s death and expelled Ӕlfwynn. Aethelstan may have served as an underking for his father between the exile of Ӕlfwynn and Edward’s death in 924.

When King Edward died on July 17, 924, it is unclear what exactly happened next. Aethelstan was elected king of the Mercians and the council of Wessex elected Aethelstan’s half-brother Aelfweard king. But Aelfweard died within a month of his father and Aethelstan may have had to fight a civil war to gain the Wessex throne. Aethelstan would have been the preferred candidate to succeed his father as he was in the prime of this life and well-versed in warfare. His surviving stepbrothers were very young. What we do know is Aethelstan finally prevailed in claiming the thrones of Mercia and Wessex and his coronation took place on September 4, 925 at Kingston-on-Thames.

Aethelstan had a very busy first year as king. In the new year of 926, he travelled north to Tamworth and met with the Norse king of York, Sihtric. Sihtric swore fealty to Aethelstan and was married to Aethelstan’s full sister whose name we do not know. Sihtric died shortly after the marriage. Sihtric’s brother Guthfrith came from Dublin to claim his brother’s throne in the name of his nephew Olaf. Aethelstan led his army north and evicted Guthfrith so quickly he couldn’t make it back to Dublin and fled to Scotland.

Aethelstan called together a summit of various leaders of Britain. They included from Wales, Hywel of the West Welsh and Owain of Gwent, along with King Constantine of the Scots and from the northern kingdom based in Bamburgh, Ealdred, son of Eadwulf. They met at Eamont Bridge near Penrith on July 12, 927. These leaders acknowledged Aethelstan as overlord by swearing allegiance. They also promised not to support Guthfrith or other Vikings and to suppress paganism. Guthfrith was eventually captured. Aethelstan entertained him lavishly and then exiled him to Dublin. Aethelstan proceeded to raze the Norse defenses to the ground.

Aethelstan wanted to expand and widen his kingdom so he next turned to the west. He subdued some of the Welsh leaders, forcing them to swear allegiance, pay tribute and agree to boundaries. During Aethelstan’s reign, Welsh leaders were frequent visitors at his court and he treated them with great respect. After dealing with the Welsh, Aethelstan went into Cornwall where there appears to have been an uprising. He now ruled a multi-national kingdom that stretched from the Channel to the Scots border. After this there was relative peace in the kingdom for the next seven years.

Aethelstan’s court was constantly on the move according to where the food supplies were and for the most part stayed within Wessex. The court and the Witan (council) grew much bigger than the small group of advisors to his grandfather Alfred. This was inevitable due to the expansion of the kingdom. The form of universal education begun under Alfred was beginning to pay off by the time of Aethelstan and literacy was quite common. He formed a court school or chapel comparable to his grandfather’s. This school was in contact with the continent and began producing manuscripts and training scholars. This led to many charters which still survive, giving us insight into the reign of Aethelstan and into Anglo-Saxon life in general.

Six different law codes date from his reign. He also attempted to reform the coinage of the realm. There was to be one coinage and they were minted only in specific towns. Aethelstan was very devout and generous with his gifts to religious foundations. The one contemporary portrayal of him depicts him giving a copy of Bede’s “Lives of St. Cuthbert” to Saint Cuthbert himself. He was an avid collector of saints’ relics and books and a patron of poets at his court. Aethelstan loved hunting, falconry and practicing his skillfulness with the sword.

Many European leaders tried to cultivate good relations with Aethelstan. Aethelstan married several of his sisters to continental rulers. Harold Fairhair, the first King of Norway is said to have sent an embassy in friendship to Aethelstan, along with a beautifully decked out ship. The German king Henry the Fowler, who married one of Aethelstan’s sisters, sent him many gifts. They included perfumes, jewels, (especially emeralds), many horses with trappings, an alabaster vase, the Sword of Constantine and the spear of Charlemagne. Many European leaders sent him saints’ relics as he was a renowned collector.

Among others Aethelstan fostered his exiled nephew Louis d’Outremer of Francia, Count Alain, son of Matuedoi of Phor in Brittany and the son of King Constantine of the Scots who was brought back as a hostage from the campaign in 934. He possibly fostered Haakon, the son of Harold Fairhair. Aethelstan gave Louis limited help in reclaiming his throne in 936. He also helped Alain drive the Vikings out of Brittany.

Aethelstan promised his half-brothers the throne as his successors. After Aelfweard died, his brother Edwin survived from King Edward’s second wife. Edwin was to die in mysterious circumstances, apparently drowning at sea in 933. Whether this was by order of Aethelstan or an accident we will never know. Aethelstan had two much younger half- brothers by Edward’s third wife, Edmund and Eadred who actually did succeed him. He showed great affection for these young men and brought them up lovingly at court. His promise to his stepbrothers is sometimes given as a reason for him never marrying. Aethelstan may have also wanted to live a life of chastity.

Interactions with Scotland had deteriorated in 934 for unknown reasons and Aethelstan went north on a well-organized campaign by land and by sea. He was successful in quelling the rebellion but King Constantine went in search of allies to retaliate. The result was the Battle of Brunanburh in 937. King Aethelstan and his brother Edmund along with West Saxons, Mercians, Danes and the Welsh fought against the combined forces of Olaf Guthfrithson, Norse king of Dublin, King Constantine II of the Scots, and Owen I, King of Strathclyde. The battle is mentioned in many sources, including Old English, Middle English, Latin, Welsh, Irish and Icelandic. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle includes a contemporary poem in Old English called “Battle of Brunanburh”.

The battle was very bloody and lasted all day. Most of the combined forces and their leaders were killed. It was a resounding victory for Aethelstan and his men. The exact location of the battle is unknown but the best guess is it happened somewhere in the Wirral Peninsula.

For the last two years of Aethelstan’s reign, he enjoyed immense power. No one dared to challenge him. He was a most effective ruler both at home and abroad. He was to die suddenly, possibly at Gloucester, on October 27, 939 around the age of forty-five. At his own request, his body was taken to Malmesbury and buried there. His death caused a revolt in York which spread to the Danelaw before Edmund could stop it. Aethelstan’s English kingdom broke apart until it was permanently reunited in 954.

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The volatile life of the father of the bomb

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What Made Him Tick

By the time I was 300 pages into Ray Monk’s formidable biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, I couldn’t imagine why anyone in his right mind would have chosen this man as director of the secret laboratory that built the first atomic bomb. If the whole thing had failed, what a harebrained scheme it would have seemed.

True enough, Oppenheimer had established himself as a brilliant theoretical physicist, even if his mathematics, by the standards of his profession, was considered a little sloppy. While he had applied the new quantum theory to solve some important problems, his contributions paled alongside those of Paul Dirac and other wunderkinder. Far from being a team player, he was a loner and an elitist, as Monk recounts in “Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center,” expressing his ideas in the most oblique, Delphic terms.

Charming one moment, caustic the next, he still carried, at age 38, the markings of a spoiled, impetuous rich kid whose depressive behavior occasionally swung toward the erratic. There were times when he even seemed crazy. During a year abroad from Harvard to study at Cambridge University, Oppenheimer confessed to putting a poisoned apple on his tutor’s desk. The truth of the matter remains murky, but it was serious enough that Oppenheimer’s father intervened with university officials, promising his son would keep regular appointments with a London psychiatrist. When the school term ended the boy was taken away by his parents on a “recuperative holiday” to France, where, in Paris, he locked his mother in a hotel room.

This recklessness didn’t end entirely with his student days. As a young professor in California, he crashed his car while racing a train, an accident that left his girlfriend unconscious. His father made amends by giving the young woman a painting and a Cézanne drawing.

By the time Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves was seeking a director for the bomb laboratory, Oppenheimer had gained the respect of the world’s most eminent physicists, and he had attracted a coterie of admiring students. But he seemed aloof and lost in abstractions, pretentiously interjecting among his equations riffs from French literature or the Upanishads. And while hardly a threat to American security, Oppenheimer appears to have been as close as a person can get to being a supporter of the Communist Party without actually carrying a membership card.

As soon as Groves met the young scientist, none of that mattered. In a meeting at Berkeley, he impressed the general with the breadth of his knowledge and, of all things, what Groves saw as his practicality. More than any other scientist the general had talked to, Oppenheimer appeared to understand what had to be done to go from abstract theories and laboratory experiments to the making of a nuclear bomb.

This was not just a physics problem. It would be an unparalleled feat of engineering, and one that must progress while basic theoretical problems were still being solved. There was no place better to do this, Oppenheimer believed, than outside the universities — in a remote, central laboratory. He didn’t object to the idea that the operation be overseen by the military. Oppenheimer, as Monk observes, seemed to have had “an unerring sense of what Groves wished to hear.”

Groves may have also seen in Oppenheimer a man driven far less by ideology than by ambition, whose need to be an important player ensured that anything he directed would be a success.

History, of course, has vindicated the decision. The brooding introvert became a leader, harnessing the efforts of a headstrong cast of brilliant physicists for an all-but-impossible task: assembling on a barely accessible New Mexico mesa top — an unlikely spot Oppenheimer had discovered on a vacation horseback ride — not just an advanced nuclear laboratory but a whole town. While he worked, he remained under surveillance, just in case Groves had misjudged him and he turned out to be a Soviet spy.

George Johnson is the author of “Strange Beauty,” a biography of the physicist Murray Gell-Mann. His book “The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery” will be published in August.

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It is an extraordinary story, and Monk — the author of acclaimed biographies of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein — tells it well. Other major biographies have been published in recent years: David C. Cassidy’s “J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century” is especially strong on the science, and Monk acknowledges Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s groundbreaking “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” as an important source for his own research. Monk (who reviewed one of my early books) says in his preface that his aim is to produce “an internal rather than an external biography,” one that gets deeper into Oppenheimer’s psychological complexity and that ties his contributions to physics more firmly into his life.

The result is an impressive work that stands as a strong challenger to other contenders. But I’m not sure it has brought us that much closer to the man. The details of Oppenheimer’s physics, though laid out clearly, reveal little about his perplexing psyche. While his childhood is neatly drawn — the privileged son of non­observant German Jews and a product of the private Ethical Culture School in New York — we learn almost nothing about his mess of a marriage or his distant relationship with his children. Bird and Sherwin’s book is more vivid on that ground.

Whatever Oppenheimer did to so thoroughly impress Groves and to motivate the scientists at Los Alamos doesn’t really come across here or in anything else I’ve read. What made him so inspiring, so indispensable? It almost seems as if he had everyone ­hypnotized.

But when the war was over, the spell was broken. Now the enemy was the Soviet Union, and Oppenheimer’s calls for avoiding a thermonuclear showdown by sharing technology and holding back on the hydrogen bomb were used by his opponents to mark him as a Red. His past indiscretions gave them plenty of ammunition.

During his directorship he had lied to a military intelligence officer. Pressured by Groves, he named old friends who had been Communists, including his own brother, Frank. There was almost no end to what he would do to protect his position — he so loved being an insider. Yet such was his carelessness that, knowing he was under close watch, he spent a night in San Francisco with an old girlfriend and party member, Jean Tatlock.

After the war came the legendary security hearings — what a government lawyer reviewing the case later called “a punitive, personal abuse of the judicial system.” No evidence came out that he had engaged in espionage. An Atomic Energy Commission personnel board concluded he was a loyal citizen. But he was not above suspicion. That was enough for them to strip him of his security clearance.

Maybe that would have been a defensible reason back in 1942 not to choose him to lead the Los Alamos project, though it would have been a mistake. Now it was just an empty vendetta.

An authority on self-destructive behavior, Oppenheimer memorably described the United States and the Soviet Union as “two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.” He was himself the casualty of scorpions fighting each other in Washington. And of the scorpions that remained corked tightly in Oppenheimer’s mind.

George Johnson is the author of “Strange Beauty,” a biography of the physicist Murray Gell-Mann. His book “The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery” will be

 

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Shakespeare’s Globe theatre burns down

Read the brief facts of the burning of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and the sassy poems which followed.

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“All This Is True…”

 

On this day in 1613 fire destroyed the Globe playhouse, where Shakespeare was both playwright and part owner. The fire started during a performance of his Henry the Eighth: sparks from a cannon set off to announce the King’s Act I entrance ignited the thatched roof, destroying the building in an hour. There are a number of contemporary descriptions of the event, two of them in poems licensed at the Stationers’ Register the very next day. Both of the poems are of uncertain authorship; they may have been written by playhouse-hating Puritans, but as competition for the entertainment shilling was fierce in Elizabethan England, the cheeky “Sonnett upon the pittiful burneinge of the Globe playhowse in London” may have been the jest of an owner of one of the rival open-air theaters. Part of the joke in the poem is based on the refrain “all this is true,” which is an alternative title for Shakespeare’s play:

…No shower his raine did there downe force

In all that Sunn-shine weather,

To save that great renowned howse;

Nor thou, O ale-howse, neither.

Had itt begunne belowe, sans doubte,

Their wives [i.e. of the owners] for feare had pissed itt out.

Oh sorrow, pittifull sorrow, and yett all this is true.

 

Bee warned, yow stage strutters all,

Least yow againe be catched,

And such a burneing doe befall,

As to them whose howse was thatched;

Forbeare your whoreing, breeding biles,

And laye up that expence for tiles.

Oh sorrow, pittifull sorrow, and yett all this is true….

London’s current, open-air Globe playhouse was constructed 200 yards from the 1613 Globe, and is as close in design and materials as scholars and building codes could manage: the thatch is of Norfolk reed, the beams are of green oak, and the plaster is of the Elizabethan sand-lime-hair recipe (though goat hair is now used, the hair of the modern British cow having been jidged too short).

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