"Knowing I lov'd my books,
he furnish'd me . . ." (The Tempest 1.2.167)
Test Your (Shakespearean) Literacy!
A Self-Testing Quiz
Guess What? You chose the correct
Oh, thou sagacious maven of
Elizabethan English, you are most correct. An "incontinent varlet" is .
The line occurs in Troilus and Cressida when the bitter and backbiting
Thersites calls all his Greek friends "all incontinent varlets!"
(5.1.106) Thersites is a pretty nasty fellow, all things considered, who
generally hates everybody. But, come to think of it, there is a lot of sexual
promiscuity in that play, so he's not wrong. A LOT of sexual promiscuity. (How's
that for a not-too-subtle nudge to get you to read the play?)
As for the language, once again, we find ourselves musing on the bodily
functions, don't we. Well, there is good reason for that, since Elizabethans
had perhaps a greater fascination with bodily functions and fluids than we have
in the modern age when science has supposedly explained it all to us. True,
"incontinent" even in Shakespeare's day could describe one who could
not control bladder or colon, but sexuality was also thought to be a bodily
function that came under similar jurisdiction of one's wits and wisdom. One
needed to hold off the sexual functions as much as one possibly could, in the
cultural "wisdom" of the Renaissance, even in marriage, since it was
generally thought that giving in to sexual urges caused a man to lessen his
lifespan, every time one indulged in the physical release of the bodily fluids
A "varlet" actually comes from the same root as "valet" in
the Old French, meaning a lowly attendant. In Shakespeare's day, a
"varlet" could mean a servant, yes, or it could also mean a rogue, a
knave, a rascal, a lowlife, a scum, a sewer-sucker, a cut-purse, a pickpocket,
a scalawag, a n'er-do-well, a guttersnipe, a . . . well, you get the idea.
And so it is, my friends, that we come once again to notice how the Early
Modern English language betrays its class biases. Clearly, it was assumed that
being born into a lower class made you more likely to be given to dishonesty
and thievery and that being born into the upper class made you given to virtue.
And if you were born into royalty, then you were given to wisdom as well as
virtue, and you were asked to rule the country.
This line of thinking is, of course, to be markedly distinguished from today,
when we not only suspect it but have seen it proved to us, many times over,
that those who rule the country are actually the incontinent varlets.
Come to think of it, those who ruled in those days were the incontinent
varlets, too. It was just against
the law to say so.