Dr. Robert N. Watson, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Recipient of the UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award in 2000 and the UCLA Gold Shield Prize in 2006, and the Neikirk Chair for Innovative Education for 2012-15, author and editor of many books and articles, is a leading scholar in an area of greatest importance for today's Quant-ruled, technocentric world: William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and contemporary poetry.

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
Humanities Building
Photo Copyright 2012 Shannon Luster
Currently, Dr. Watson is working on a historical study, two books, online Shakespeare projects, naming only a few of his important scholarly pursuits. As a former student of Dr. Watson, I also witnessed first-hand how he applies the vastness of his knowledge and takes Shakespeare out of the shrine of scholarship so his students can meet famous bard's mind and the universal concepts he embodies right here and now.

In the spirit of Shakespeare, Dr. Watson is an outspoken advocate when he defends the humanities, speaks out against war, critiques the pitfalls of blinding conformity and popular anti-intellectualism, as well as defends liberty and the free exchange of ideas--all issues dear to Cultmachine's heart.

Cultmachine's Shannon Luster and Andreas Kossak had a chance to talk to Dr. Watson.


SHANNON LUSTER: Was there a defining moment when you decided to pursue English degrees? Did anyone inspire you to take this course in life and if so, who?

Dr. Robert Watson, UCLA
Photo Copyright 2012 Robert Watson
ROBERT WATSON: Maybe it started very early, because my mother was a professor of modern British literature, and founder of one of the first women's studies programs in American universities. And my father was a professor also, mostly working on radical educational psychology. As for so many people, it just had to get triggered by a few very good teachers in high school and college. But, even in my senior year, I wasn't sure of my path; I didn't feel professorial.

SL: I read that you earned your Bachelors at Yale. What was your educational experience like? Any defining moments you’d like to share?

RW: I loved Yale; it felt like finally waking up to myself. I had been a drifting kid until I was around 16, interested mostly in sports, and not much of a student.

SL: My favorite Shakespeare quote comes from Othello when Iago says, "O, beware, my lord, of jealousy. It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on." Do you have a favorite Shakespeare quote?

RW: It changes, but lately, “Though the seas threaten, they are merciful. I have cursed them without cause.”

SL: Do you have a favorite movie based upon a Shakespeare play? And if so, what is it? And why?

Akira Kurosawa - Throne of Blood (1957)
Source: Wikipedia
RW: Yes: Kurosawa’s samurai adaptation of “Macbeth,” misleadingly titled Throne of Blood in its English-language release. It inspired me toward my dissertation project when I saw it in a midnight showing of a battered old print in a college dining hall, and every time I watch it I see more in it, more sharp observation and broad wisdom, as it translates Shakespeare's language into these stunning visual compositions.

ANDREAS KOSSAK: Jazz musicians talk about the 'elasticity' of certain standards and how they can withstand countless interpretations. In 1989 I observed the rehearsals for As You Like It by the Comedie Francaise. Lluis Pasqual directed and Djamila Salah was his dramaturge. At first, the setting was a stage-filling mirror, the house lights were left on, forcing the audience to look at themselves, and the music was Pink Floyd's Echoes from the album Meddle. I was struck how Shakespeare's play had that 'elasticity,' how it could not only 'survive' this radical treatment, but thrive and affect the audience in a deep way. What, in your opinion, makes Shakespeare plays so timeless?

RW: There's a question almost too good to answer. Somehow Shakespeare seems to have seen down to the core of human experience, and woven what he saw there into these charged fields of mental energy that mean something different at whatever moment and from whatever angle you enter them. There's so much meaning available, but no railed path through it.
Dr. Watson teaching
Photo Copyright 2012 Robert Watson

believe that both human culture and human nature change much more slowly than our bustling consumer-commercial culture leads us to believe, and so I welcome opportunities to talk about how current Shakespeare's insights are.

AK: In general, what is the current state in Shakespeare research? What are the topics scholars like you are interested in?

RW: A million different things – and that’s good news. Over the past thirty years, there has usually been a semi-obligatory methodology: psychoanalytic, then feminist, then deconstructionist, then New Historicist. Grad students felt obliged to mimic the latest thing. Maybe my vision is just blurry, but now it seems to me that things are much wider open. Ecocriticism, which has been my prime focus recently, certainly seems to be growing. So does work associated with cognitive science. Religion has returned as a topic. But we each go lots of individual ways.

SL: I have also heard that you are well traveled, recently returning from England where you researched there during the last year. What was that like? Would you mind sharing with us what you are researching?

Dr. Watson in Cambridge
Photo Copyright 2012 Robert Watson
RW: Like the profession as I was just describing it, my work has been quite multiple this year. I’ve been drafting what may be a short book on a big topic: the relationship between human cognition, cultural evolution, and the value of higher education in the humanities.

I’ve also been finishing a couple of pieces about how new language was created and marketed by Shakespeare and his rival playwrights.

And a more historical study of what I see as an important correlation between radical early Protestantism and animal-protection sentiments in England.

And a couple of online Shakespeare projects. But the main thing has been a book (with an environmentalist thrust) on Shakespeare and the boundaries of the human self.

Dr. Robert Watson
Photo Copyright 2012 Robert Watson
SL: A few years ago, you mentored my sister, Julia Luster, with a paper about a comparative analysis of Herbert and Donne's religious/erotic poetry. You also taught your regular course load at UCLA. And you are prolific with your research too. How do you balance both researching, mentoring and teaching at UCLA?

RW: I like to be busy, and I love the work, which makes it much easier. It also helps to discover that, despite the official line that teaching and research actually reinforce and refresh each other, they actually do.

AK: We would like to commend you for publicly expressing your views, for exercising your 1st amendment rights, but this was not appreciated by some and you were targeted on the infamous "Dirty Thirty" list. What did those targeting you try to do, what got them so upset and how do you feel about those events today?

Outside Dr. Watson's office at UCLA
Photo Copyright 2012 Shannon Luster
RW: It's certainly tempting to play the blacklist martyr, but probably it all made me more friends than enemies in the academic world. What was scary was recognizing it as part of a broader (and mostly less clumsy) effort to intimidate institutions of higher learning out of their role as havens of dissent – of second thoughts, inconvenient truths, and uncommon sense. During the post-9/11 phase of American political culture, there was a shift toward reactionary conformism that awoke some nasty ghosts from the post-WWII Red Scares. And the forces of extreme wealth, personal and corporate, saw and seized the chance to make an alliance with the forces of popular anti-intellectualism that have always been part of the American landscape. So we’re now having to battle, in the university as in so many places beyond it, against the assumption that money should rule the world, as the true measure and ultimate goal of everything.

AK: Universities are generally recognized as special places where all ideas can and should be explored. How do you see the state of academic freedom today?

RW: The sanctuary is holding, but the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. And the old crude forms of political assault are, as I just suggested, being augmented by subtler strategies to achieve the same erasure of dissenting views by financial pressure.

UCLA Humanities Building, housing the English Department
Photo Copyright 2012 Shannon Luster
AK: Your father was persecuted by the HUAC committee. Did this influence you?

RW: Most of that was before I was old enough to understand what was happening, and my father seldom spoke about it. But I think it ended up giving me fierce reflexes when I see bullying, and a flammable temper on political issues, especially when they play to people’s tribal reflexes over their intelligence. And being an adolescent in the late 1960s was a perfect crucible for those types of heat.

AK: In a must-read article entitled "Bottom line shows humanities, really do make money," you debunk the myth that the humanities, English departments in particular, depend for their financial survival on the support of perceived "profit centers" like science departments or medical schools. You also address another flaw in all those "balance sheet arguments," which is the omission of all values humanities contribute to "students and state"--could you expand on what society be like without humanities?

RW: I think we’ve been seeing it; the main question is how the losses can be staunched. In things like the Occupy movement and the new book by Michael Sandel, people have been trying to remind their fellow citizens that something precious is slipping away when we start assuming everything can be quantified, and valued by its quantity. And when we lose the ability to recognize that other creatures – races, genders, even species – consist of yearning individual who have as real and deep and compelling an experience of life as our own

SL: I’ve also noticed you have edited a number of books. And you have also written a number of books. Do you have a preference? Or do you find enjoyment in both editing and writing?

RW: There’s certainly a consolation having a piece of work in front of you to edit, and nudging it along – especially when it’s a great work of literature which (unlike a monograph of literary criticism) a lot of people might find worth reading for a long time to come. It spares you the sometimes-terrifying specter of the blank screen or sheet, waiting for…something. But it also lacks the thrill of figuring out what that something is, and finally finding the words for it.

AK: You are very prolific and have published a number of books (see the selected bibliography below), and you also write and publish poetry. Please tell us about that.

RW: Writing poetry is a guilty pleasure; I love it, but realize it just puts me in the same becalmed boat with thousands of other vain scribblers (all staring at our reflections in the water instead of reading each other's verse). Worthwhile anyway, though, because sometimes it’s the only way to say something that seems to be begging for expression, on the fringes of what we think we know and feel at any given moment.



Back to Nature
The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance.
Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
Available to purchase at University of Pennsylvania Press:
Available to purchase at Amazon:

Wherefore Art Thou Tereu?: Juliet and the Legacy of Rape.
Renaissance Quarterly 58 (2005), pp. 127-56.
Feel free to read the article at:

Volpone, Second Edition
New Mermaids. Edited by Robert N. Watson.
Manhattan, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003.
Available to purchase at Amazon:

Every Man in His Humor
New Mermaids. UK: Methuen Drama, 1998.
Available to purchase at Amazon:

Critical Essays on Ben Jonson.
Edited by Robert N. Watson. New York: G.K.
Hall, 1997.
Available to purchase at Amazon:

The Rest is Silence: Death as Annihilation in the English Renaissance.
Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1994.
Available to purchase at Amazon:

Ben Jonson’s Parodic Strategy: Literary Imperialism in the Comedies.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1987.
Available to purchase at Amazon:

Shakespeare and the Hazards of Ambition.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984.
Available to purchase at Amazon:


Official Website: http://www.english.ucla.edu/faculty/rnwatson/

UCLA Department of English Page: http://www.english.ucla.edu/index.php/Faculty/watson-robert-n

UCLA Today Article: http://www.today.ucla.edu/portal/ut/bottom-line-shows-humanities-really-155771.aspx

Poem Published in The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/poetry/2010/08/09/100809po_poem_watson