By Tom Elrod ’08
From September 18 to 20, 2007, Rob Watson, associate vice-provost for educational innovation at the University of California–Los Angeles, visited Dickinson College as part of a celebration of the academic career of the soon-to-be-retired Professor David Kranz.
Watson received his B.A. from Yale in 1975, his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1979, taught at Harvard until 1986, and has been at UCLA ever since. As a Shakespeare scholar, Watson has written a number of books on Renaissance literature, including Shakespeare and the Hazards of Ambition, Ben Jonson’s Parodic Strategy: Literary Imperialism in the Comedies, and his most recent, Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance, which explores the role of nature in early modern literature.
Though a lecture on Back to Nature was the central focus on Watson’s visit, he participated in a number of other events within the English department as well. Several students, for example, had the opportunity to eat lunch with Professor Watson, where they discussed Watson’s own recent critical work as well as the challenges of academic scholarship in general. While talking about the development of ideas and writing, Watson told the students the story of his own dissertation. “I saw Throne of Blood,” he explained, a 1957 Akira Kurosawa adaptation of Macbeth, “and found it very compelling.” He wanted to use it as the starting point for his dissertation’s argument, but ultimately, “it became just a footnote on page 85 or something. It’s interesting how ideas develop like that.”
Watson also visited several English classes as a guest lecturer, including Carol Ann Johnston’s senior seminar “John Donne and Material Culture,” where the discussion, focusing on the use of death in Donne’s poetry, started with a chapter from Watson’s own book The Rest is Silence: Death as Annihilation in the English Renaissance.
The highlight of Watson’s visit was his public discussion of Back to Nature. The lecture considered the role of literature in the modern world, especially as science and technology are redefining man’s relationship with the environment. Watson said that an ambiguous, changing relationship with nature has been a thematic hallmark of the arts for centuries. His first example was a series of 17th century Dutch still-lifes that showed dead animals, all presumably killed in hunts. By demonstrating the religious symbolism inherent in these desecrated bodies, Watson explained how the paintings mediated a space where nature could be controlled. He concluded by discussing the role of nature in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, applying similar critical tools as with his discussion of Dutch painting.
Watson’s accessible, well-attended talk connected the literature of the 16th century and the art of the 17th with many of the ethical problems of environmentalism today. His three-day visit was both an exciting breath of intellectual fresh air and an encouraging show of the strength of literary criticism in the 21st century.