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Alice Leonard, Shakespeare in Error: Error in Shakespeare
by Joseph Gamble

Alice Leonard, Shakespeare in Error: Error in Shakespeare. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. 197 pp. ISBN: 9783030351793. £64.99 hardback.


In Shakespeare in Error: Error in Shakespeare, Alice Leonard valorises the concept of ‘error’ as both a potential virtue – a productive form of ‘wandering’, to draw on the etymological root of the word – and as a methodological entry point into early modern thought processes. ‘Error’, she writes, ‘exposes what the world takes for granted, revealing something of the political unconscious of a moment, how a society orders the world according to right and wrong, and assigns or withholds equivalent value’ (3). Rather than correct errors, then, Leonard argues that we should see errors as constitutive of the texts and cultures at hand, as vital components of early modern thought and literary practice. Despite its title, the book ranges beyond the Shakespearean corpus into plays by Jonson and Marston (and, especially relevant to readers of The Spenser Review, even into a short reading of Spenser’s Errour), but Leonard ultimately attempts to persuade her reader that error is particularly present and vital in Shakespeare’s early comedies and history plays, which are her primary objects of analysis. Though she argues that ‘in comedy [error] is casual and in tragedy it is causal’ (6, emphasis hers), she cautions that we should nevertheless not assume that error in Shakespeare’s comedies is ‘frivolous’ and should instead approach it as a ‘political topic for examination’ (6).

‘Error’ in this book has an extremely capacious reach, and each of the chapters takes up a different facet of error in various early modern texts. Chapter Two focuses on figurative language, analysing in particular how early modern rhetoricians understood figuration as a form of necessary and productive (if also potentially dangerous) error. Reading Jonson’s Poetaster and A Tale of A Tub, Leonard convincingly demonstrates that Jonson attempts to castigate error, whereas Shakespeare – as she argues in readings of Love’s Labours Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and both 1 and 2 Henry IV – ‘exploit[s] the dramatic spectacle of indecorum’, and celebrates the poetic productivity of error (59). Chapter Three focuses on the gendering of error, and particularly on the concept of the ‘mother tongue’. Offering readings of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Romeo and Juliet, the various parts of Henry VI, and, briefly, Book I of The Faerie Queene, Leonard argues that early modern women’s speech was seen as inherently imbued with error, even as the notion of the ‘mother tongue’ installed gender into the nationalisation of language. This chapter most surprises when it juxtaposes Queen Margaret from Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays with Spenser’s Errour, who, Leonard argues ‘appears as a character as a fantastical mother tongue’ (103). Though readers of The Spenser Review may wish for Leonard to have expanded on her very brief reading of Spenser (which fills only slightly less than three pages in a book of nearly two hundred), they will surely find the comparisons between Spenser and Shakespeare illuminating.

Chapter Four focuses on the association of errors in speech with the encroachment of non-English words into the English language and onto the English stage. Here Leonard pays special attention to Franceschina in Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan and Katherine in Henry V, two ‘foreign’ characters who make errors in their English speech. Leonard argues that Shakespeare’s treatment of Katherine’s linguistic errors is gentler than Marston’s condemnation of Franceschina, and thus that Shakespeare’s play is more in-line with a pluralistic view of early modern language, one that allows for the productive potential of incorporating foreign languages into English. Shakespeare thus, in her view, ‘plays with the dubious characterisation of foreignness as wrongness, using error to challenge an idea of national identity stabilised through linguistic homogeneity’ (118). Though I was excited to see a somewhat surprising juxtaposition of The Dutch Courtesan and Henry V, I found the capaciousness of Leonard’s conception of ‘error’ to be slightly more obfuscatory than illuminating in this chapter, since the focus on linguistic error in these plays took precedence over analyses of class and genre, which might well account for the differing treatment of these two characters – one a sex worker in a city comedy, one a princess in a history play.

Finally, Chapter Five analyses an inescapable text for a book on Shakespearean error: The Comedy of Errors. Here Leonard turns most explicitly to the book historical, returning to bibliographic and editorial debates about the various confusions around speech tags in early editions of the play in order to claim that such confusions are not faults or defects, but constitutive and productive elements of the play’s own investment in confusion. Tackling ‘error’ in a more restrictive sense, this is, in my estimation, the book’s best chapter, and though book historians and editors may be well-versed in the bibliographic ground that Leonard treads here, I think most readers will learn much from Leonard’s discussions of the play’s early printing, and of early modern and modern readers’, performers’, and editors’ attempts to make sense of the play’s textual ‘errors’. I certainly did.

 Shakespeare in Error is a well-researched study of the capacity of language to wander astray in early modern drama and culture more broadly. In our own moment of misinformation and mistake – our own ‘culture of error’, as Adam Smyth calls early modernity in his preface to this book (ix) – Leonard’s turn to error feels timely. This book will surely be of interest to scholars of early modern rhetoric and language, and to anyone who has ever made an error.


Joseph Gamble



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Cite as:

Joseph Gamble, "Alice Leonard, Shakespeare in Error: Error in Shakespeare," Spenser Review 52.1.8 (Winter 2022). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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