Error in Shakespeare: Shakespeare in Error

May 16, 2020
By Alice Leonard

This book began with a fascination for the sensation when you read or hear Shakespearean dramatic poetry that is so dense and complex it almost passes over you. You haven’t understood it, but it also hasn’t left you entirely blank, either. If you hear it in the theatre you only get one shot, and if you’re reading it perhaps you have the luxury to read it again.

I was interested in how and why Shakespeare put together speeches, especially in verse, which are almost completely non-literal, maddeningly densely allusive, and which stack metaphor on top of metaphor. For Renaissance rhetoricians, these were clear moments of indecorum. The book examines these misdirections of metaphor, especially in the context of bardolatry, where Shakespearean language has been affirmed and praised for centuries by a nation-building discourse of excellence that resists any accusation of faultiness.

This book approaches error in its multiple forms, as something as small as a misprint in Shakespeare’s earliest texts, for example with the name ‘Innogen’ in Cymbeline, which gets misprinted as ‘Imogen’ (1623). This is now familiar as the name we know today, but is not what appears in Holinshed, Shakespeare’s source. Misprints can have negligible effects, or can be small radical units, as in the Wicked Bible’s immeasurably significant printing ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’.

Error is structural as well as textual. An error can be a character’s state of being, like the comically erroneous Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the chronic over talker and mistaker Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor. In Shakespeare, we get to witness the errors of others, as we see Othello inexorably pulled into his own psychological trap believing Desdemona to be unfaithful, or the error can be ‘sympathis’d’ by both characters and audience as we all confuse one twin for another in The Comedy of Errors. On the early modern stage, errors of language are revealing. To speak faultily can be the mark of a foreigner and can thus be a site for racism or xenophobia. Yet the etymology of error comes from the Latin ‘wandering’, tempering its sense of mistake, and error can be a much more neutral or even productive category in the Renaissance. For Shakespeare, error can be a mistake that progresses the plot, for example with Leontes’ unfounded belief in Hermione’s infidelity, or can be a series of dead-ends, as with the copious, witty but ultimately useless exchange between Maria and Feste in Twelfth Night.

This book finds that the workings of error are most significant in four areas of Shakespeare: the literary error within figurative language (chapter one); political error that challenges the association between error with women (chapter two) and foreigners (chapter three); and textual error in the transmission and editing of the earliest texts (chapter four).

Error is something to be corrected or ignored and therefore questions about its status, function and politics in literature have been mainly unasked. Yet in the Renaissance, error was of huge significance, a period described by Antony Grafton as a ‘culture of correction’. While Erasmus, for example, held high standards of linguistic rectitude and famously complained of the sloppy work and ill-education of those at work in printer’s shops, faultiness and mistake were held in a broader Christian frame of wandering and sin. The Reformation created a schism of faith and dogma within Christianity, and error became strongly associated with heresy. I argue that the Renaissance is marked by an attitude to error and correction which Shakespeare did not share. Within this context of regulation, proofing and rectitude, the consequences of ignoring error in Shakespeare are all the more significant. The energy that comes from its rebellious, unexpected or digressive potential, is mobilised in the creation of literary drama.



Due to the ongoing travel restrictions and disruption caused by Covid-19, a number of book launches and other events of interest to our members have been cancelled or postponed. In what the SRS hopes will become a regular series, we have invited Alice Leonard, author of Error in Shakespeare: Shakespeare in Error to discuss her work with friends, colleagues and well-wishers. The online book launch will take place on 20 May at 4.30pm BST. Do join us by registering for the book launch, if you can! If you are unable to make the live event, you may watch it on catch up.

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