English, Department of


Date of this Version

Spring 2007


Published in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Spring, 2007), pp. 125-127.


Published by Oxford University Press. Used by permission.


Robert Watsons Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance identifies the Renaissance as the moment of an "absolutely fundamental change in its consensual interpretation of reality" (41). Fear that material reality obscures true knowledge ("things getting in the way of the Word") gave way to concern that words and other forms of human perception were key impediments to truth or knowledge ("words getting in the way of Things") (41). This decentering of medieval religious epistemology made itself felt across the arts and sciences of late Renaissance culture and brought with it a compensatory need to experience things in and as themselves. Writers and painters responded to the sense that man is both the means and impediment to true knowledge by evoking the possibility of a return to some stable reality, an origin in nature. After an introduction on the art-nature debate in Shakespeare and Spenser, Watson pursues the philosophical implications of this turn to nature in two chapters on Shakespeare (As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice), three on seventeenth-century English poetry, and two on seventeenth-century Dutch painting. Whether in Shakespearean comedy, Jacobean lyric poetry, or Dutch landscape painting, Renaissance culture embraced the "green" as its hope for returning to the "real." In Watson's ambitious and wide-ranging study, the ungrounding of epistemology becomes the founding of modern ecology.

Back to Nature stands alongside two classics that have, from opposed perspectives, defined "green studies" in the Renaissance: Harry Berger Jr.’s Second World and Green World (1988) and Carolyn Merchant's The Death of Nature (1980). Berger's model of the green world is, among other things, a celebration of secular humanism that focuses on the human implications of how man constructs his world. Merchant's ecofeminist approach documents the ravages that those human inventions and interventions have imposed on nature. Watson offers us an account that recognizes how these traditions have, historically, been two sides of the same coin. Back to Nature makes a significant contribution to recent scholarship that sees art and poetry as integral to the knowledge cultures of the seventeenth century. Rather than celebrating the triumphs of new knowledge, Watson pursues the deep uncertainties that came with such knowledge. Much of the literary material that Watson covers is familiar territory; what makes his readings vibrant and compelling is his ability to draw out the epistemological inquiries that persist across these works. For Watson, aesthetic works are not commentaries on philosophy but instances of it: Leontes' behavior is "philosophically derived" (60); Iago is a kind of Cartesian thought experiment (55). Shakespeare's plays stand out not because they return us to nature but because they hold out a "belief in the intuitions and analogies by which human minds endure their imperfect contact with the universe" (288).