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A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (2005) by James Shapiro. New York: HarperCollins.

This book provides the reader with a unique viewpoint concerning the cultural and political background for three of Shakespeare's plays written in 1599. He wrote Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar and As You Like It during this important year in England's history and literature. He also completed a draft of Hamlet during this time. The author stresses that Shakespeare lived in a highly competitive environment for playwrights and acting companies. Among his several competitors were the Admiral's Men and Queen's Men. This competition was also associated with his leadership of the acting company, the Chamberlain's Men, and its continuing performances before Queen Elizabeth's royal court. Additionally, he supervised the construction of his acting company's new home during this time, the Globe Theatre. Besides writing plays for the Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare acted in them, and served as general manager and performance director. Shapiro discusses all of these activities in the context of historical events that occurred prior to and during 1599, particularly the Irish Rebellion led by the Earl of Tyrone in which several thousand English troops were massacred at Blackwater, Ireland, and the threat of invasion by the Spanish Armada during the summer of 1599.

Besides presenting a fascinating history of these historical events, Shapiro includes many interesting portraits of important people in Shakespeare's life and England's political history. First, there are his acting colleagues, Richard Burbage who had major roles in Richard the Third, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, Will Kemp who was well-known among Londoners for his comedy roles, Ben Jonson who was Shakespeare's fellow playwright, and the greatest poet of his age, Edmund Spenser. Second, the author has written detailed portraits of major political figures - among them are Queen Elizabeth I and her royal court, including her closest advisor, Lord Burghley. And there is the Queen's admirer and leader of England's counter-offensive against Ireland, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. Two years after returning to England, Devereux led an aborted palace coup; he was rewarded by the Queen in 1601 with his own beheading in the Tower of London.

The political events and intrigues that occurred prior to and during the Irish Rebellion and the war against France (1415-20) informed Shakespeare's writing of Henry the Fifth. This king, who led the English troops, is famous for the defeat of a larger French army at Agincourt in 1415. Shapiro's discussion of this play demonstrates that English citizens were ambiguous about fighting wars in both France and Ireland, particularly because strict class distinctions resulted in most of the honors and spoils going to the royalty with little recompense for commoners.

As a playwright, director and producer, Shakespeare developed many innovations in the Elizabethan theatre. He demanded greater efforts from the actors to perform more difficult roles, and required more serious attention from the audience to understand the plot and sequence of action. He shifted control of performances from the actors to the playwright. As an example, he eliminated comedic improvisation and replaced it with fixed roles such as the parts associated with Sir John Falstaff in Henry the Fourth - Parts One and Two, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry the Fifth.

There is a long-running dispute concerning who was the "real" Shakespeare. This book demonstrates that the links between Elizabethan culture, politics and the business of producing plays resulted in only one individual, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, the astounding genius of the English language who has moved audiences worldwide to appreciate stories about Roman emperors, English kings, Italian lovers, and other imaginary tales of history, comedy and tragedy. In these times of radical change and war, it is important for educators of the gifted to develop some understanding of geniuses who represent the highest levels of creativity in the arts and humanities. Shapiro will help them along the path to obtaining this knowledge. By studying this wonderful book, gifted students and their teachers will appreciate learning about the different sources of Shakespeare's motivation and creativity.

"This work, then, grew out of frustration with how much I didn't know and frustration with scholars of all critical denominations who never quite got around to addressing the question I found most pressing: how, at age thirty-five, Shakespeare went from being an exceptionally talented writer to one of the greatest who ever lived. Put another way: how, in the course of little over a year, did he go from writing The Merry Wives of Windsor to writing a play as inspired as Hamlet? . . ." (Preface, p. xvii)

"Something extraordinary was beginning to happen as Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar in the spring of 1599. The various strands of politics, character, inwardness, contemporary events, even Shakespeare's own reflections on the act of writing, began to infuse each other. Brutus's and Antony's long funeral orations notwithstanding, Shakespeare was writing in an exceptionally spare and compressed style. The play's twenty-five hundred lines, for a change, were almost all in verse, and it was eight hundred lines shorter than Henry the Fifth. It's as if all his energies were self-consciously focused on a new and different kind of invention. . . . In contrast to all the inconsistencies and second thoughts that characterized the writing of Henry the Fifth, the streamlined Julius Caesar feels as if it was written without interruption in a few short weeks." (Chapter 7: Book Burning, p. 134)

"Changing how we think about Shakespeare's greatest play [Hamlet] means revising how we think about Shakespeare. The Romantic myth of literary genius, which has long promoted an effortless and unfathomable Shakespeare, cannot easily accommodate a model of a Shakespeare whose greatness was a product of labor as much as talent. The humbler portrait of Shakespeare presented here is of a writer who knew himself, knew his audience, and knew what worked. . . ." (Chapter 15: Second Thoughts, p. 319)

The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (2005) by Tim Gallagher. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Since 1944 this bird had eluded sightings by naturalists and ornithologists. It was native to the South with the last viewing made at the Singer Tract in Louisiana. It was considered extinct, the victim of uncontrolled habitat destruction and massive logging operations. Tim Gallagher is a nature photographer and editor in chief of Living Bird, which is the highly respected periodical from the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. His account of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in February 2004 with two of his fellow-birders is also a history of the six-decade search for the ghost bird. In this personal account of his explorations, Gallagher describes many birders and local characters obsessed with the search that culminated in sightings by the author, Bobby Harrison and Gene Sparling in Bayou de View, a section of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. Gifted students who like nature studies will be enthralled with this personal story of discovery and dedication to the natural world.

"And then it happened. Less than eighty feet away; a large black-and-white bird that had been flying toward us from a side channel of the bayou to the right came out into the sunshine and flew across the open stretch of water directly in front of us. It started to bank, giving us a superb view of its back and both wings for a moment as it pulled up, as if it were going to land on a tree trunk. "Look at all the white on its wings!" I yelled. Hearing my voice, it veered away from the tree and continued to fly to the left. We both cried out simultaneously, 'Ivory-bill!' " (Chapter 10: A Bayou With A View, p. 152)


Lessons for Gifted Students Regarding Nathaniel Hawthorne's Short Stories

Michael E. Walters

Center For The Study of The Humanities in The Schools

The short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) offer important lessons for gifted students that will appeal to their holistic temperament and stimulate both their thinking and emotions.

The short stories, Dr. Heidegger's Experiment (1837) and Rappaccini's Daughter (1846), are primary examples of Hawthorne's ability to demonstrate two particular concepts - the concern for the pursuit of knowledge for personal gain, and the link between knowledge and power. In Rappaccini's Daughter, a scientist at the University of Padua in Italy seeks to control his daughter's love life. The tragic aspect is that the father believes he is doing it for her benefit.. He injects his daughter with a plant substance that makes any romantic encounter a fatal one. Any suitor approved by the father would receive an antidote that enabled the couple to have a normal married life. However, this plan was not successful as the lovers chose mortality and personal freedom over scientific control by an obsessive father. In Dr. Heidegger's Experiment a group of older individuals seek to regain their youth by drinking a liquid similar to water in Ponce de Leon's fountain of youth. The effects are extremely transitory and lead to self-destruction. In both stories, Hawthorne presents his readers with parables on the ethics of science.

There are two ethical dilemmas in science related to issues addressed in these two short stories - stem cell research using fetuses and cloning research. How can major scientific progress be made in these fields within the bounds of physical safety and ethical behavior? By reading Hawthorne's short stories, gifted students can wrestle with these an other major concerns that haunt the present generation.

Gifted students can also increase their understanding of issues that face our age in science by learning the sources of Hawthorne's short stories. This can be accomplished by reading the Notes in The Library of American ad Modern Library versions of his stories. Creative works are the result of a well-examined life in the Socratic sense. Behind each story are a multitude of facts illustrating many intellectual inquiries. For example, in Rappaccini's Daughter, Hawthorne included many inquiries into botany and nature. In the same story, he made an inquiry into the uses of scientific research. By studying Hawthorne's stories and their underlying factual sources, gifted students will read more widely and inclusively for a deeper understanding of science and ethics. His writing style is also important for gifted students to study since he wrote on both lyrical and symbolic levels. To read Hawthorne is to analyze the world and one's responses to its demands. Because of these unique writing characteristics, all of his stories will linger in the gifted student's mind.

Maurice D. Fisher, Publisher, Copyright © by Gifted Education Press, February-March 2006