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  • Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance
  • Elizabeth Spiller (bio)
Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance. By Robert N. Watson . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Illus. Pp. viii + 438. $59.95 cloth.

Robert Watson's 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.

The first four chapters introduce the subject of human alienation from the natural world and the concomitant human desire to "impose its familiarities" (100) on that world. For Watson, Renaissance drama and poetry align themselves with philosophical skepticism in a shared "crisis of not quite knowing" (57). Ranging through a core of Shakespeare plays (The Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, Love's Labor's Lost, Othello, King Lear, The Winter's Tale, and As You Like It, among others), Watson rightly does not argue for direct influences between writers such as Shakespeare and Descartes but describes how the philosophical quest for absolute knowledge appears, transfigured, in plays that center on sexual jealousy. Othello and Leontes cannot believe in the faithfulness of their wives any more than Descartes can be certain of a reality beyond his mind. In As You Like It, the return to Arden becomes an attempt to arrive at the philosophical reality it implies. The forest offers a refuge, but its apparent simplicity can only be comprehended by the metaphors that displaced courtiers impose upon it. Marvell's Mower poems recognize the insurmountable dualism that separates man from the world. If in "The Mower's Song" the "'mind was once the true survey / Of all these meadows fresh and gay'" (124), that commensurability between mind and matter has been lost. "'A green thought'" is not the same as "'a green shade'" (112). Epistemological losses are registered as sexual and erotic ones: "'she / What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me'" (125). The return to nature may be a form of [End Page 125] philosophical inquiry, but it is achieved through acts of stalking that are at once sexual and epistemological.

In chapters 5 through 8, Watson turns to the religious dimensions of this desire for Edenic contact with nature. The Protestant argument for religious experience created by the individual believer and the High Church commitment to communal faith involve, for Watson, two distinct epistemological stances. Radical Protestantism insisted that "the essential reality [was] the one created within the individual believer," but the Laudian church looked for "an essential reality created through the senses as a shared legacy" (137). The wit and conceit of metaphysical poetry are literary expressions of the Protestant argument that knowledge of God must come, unmediated, from within an individual believer. On the other side of the aisle, Cavalier poetry takes a High Church position: carpe diem and country-house poems involve "a submission to convention, to physical objects" (146...


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