Word of the Day: Varlet
“A good varlet, a good varlet, a very good varlet”, says Shallow of his servant, after having drunk a few too many glasses of “sack” (wine). The question is, though, is the inebriated rustic being decorous or insulting? To judge by some of Shakespeare’s twenty-one other uses of the word “varlet”, it seems pretty likely to be an insult. An irate (and malapropism-prone) constable Elbow turns, for example, on an aspersion-casting Pompey with the words “Varlet, thou liest; thou liest, wicked varlet: the time is yet to come that [my wife] was ever respected with man, woman, or child.” And King Lear, as well as Measure for Measure is also rich in varlets, with Kent calling Oswald a “brazen-faced Varlet”, and Lear repeating the insult a few scenes later.
If there were a prize for ‘varletry’, however, it would have to go to Troilus and Cressida. Thersites calls Achilles’ beloved friend Patroclus a “male varlet”, Troilus asks for his “varlet” to help him unarm, and Thersites, again, this time surveying all the Greek and Trojan heroes, sums the lot up as a “bunch of incontinent varlets”. This great variety allows us to see the various senses of the word a little more clearly, and, hence, resolve the Shallow conundrum that I began this article with. When Troilus asks for his “varlet”, he is simply asking for a servant, in the same way one might ask for a ‘valet’. If this is Shallow’s sense, then he is being pretty positive about his “very good” servant.
Unfortunately, the sense of ‘servant’ is not too far removed from some less positive meanings, such as ‘social inferior’ (that used by Lear and Kent to insult the courtier Oswald), or even ‘sex slave’ (Patroclus as “Achilles’ male varlet”). All this eventually brings us to a more general meaning of ‘scoundrel’, employed by Elbow to describe Pompey and Thersites to describe everyone around him. Not employed, however, by Shallow, whom I take as an incompetent but far from malign presence in Henry IV part II, and thus not likely to cast aspersions on his servant as he enjoys some wine with his old friend Falstaff.