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Shakespeare Sonnet 121

The Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence remains essential in my poetry tool kit. Masterfully crafted, they dramatize love, beauty, and truth.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 121

The speaker in sonnet 121 sets forth an announcement of principle; he is not addressing anyone in particular, even though he poses questions. The sonnet functions as a soliloquy in a play would do.

The writer of the Shakespearean canon remains most famous for his plays both comedies as well as tragedies, including Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Julius Caesar, and at least thirty more. Hamlet alone features a whopping seven of the most famous soliloquies in the history of the literary arts.

Sonnet 121

'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,
When not to be receives reproach of being;
And the just pleasure lost, which is so deemed
Not by our feeling, but by others' seeing:
For why should others' false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?
No, I am that I am, and they that level
At my abuses reckon up their own:
I may be straight though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts, my deeds must not be shown;
Unless this general evil they maintain,
All men are bad and in their badness reign.

Reading of Sonnet 121

Commentary

The speaker soliloquizes about the damage caused by gossiping critics who attempt to destroy what they do not understand.

First Quatrain: On Being vs Seeming Bad

'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,
When not to be receives reproach of being;
And the just pleasure lost, which is so deemed
Not by our feeling, but by others' seeing:

The speaker proclaims his idea that it is better to be a bad person than to be merely thought to be bad by others who do not really know. If gossiping busybodies contend that the target of their gossip is other then he actually is, the latter might feel it incumbent upon himself to change his behavior to suit the gossipers.

In which case, the victim of gossip would be allowing himself to be distorted “not by [his own] feeling, but by others’ seeing.” The speaker disdains such hypocrisy; therefore, he exaggerates the notion that it is better to be “vile than vile esteem’d.”

Second Quatrain: Rhetorical Questions

For why should others' false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?

The speaker then poses two rhetorical questions:

  1. Why should those who understand so little about me be thought to possess the ability to judge my feelings and worth?
  2. Why should those who lack all understanding of moral value be thought to have the capability to judge as not valid what I think is, in fact, true?

Each question contains its own answer:

  1. Those who understand so little about me do not possess the ability to judge me in anyway.
  2. Those who lack all understanding of moral value have no business offering their moronic conclusions about what I deem right and good.

No one should have to modify his/her life according to those who do not see correctly and understand thoroughly. And “frailer spies” cannot be counted on to validly judge the “frailties” of others.

Third Quatrain: Brave Assertions

No, I am that I am, and they that level
At my abuses reckon up their own:
I may be straight though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts, my deeds must not be shown;

The speaker asserts bravely, “I am that I am,” and those who unjustly criticize him are merely airing their own faults. They criticize without understanding him and thus demonstrate that they are the ones who are out of step with reality.

The gossiping critics diminish their own reputation by trying to dull that of one they do not even understand. They possess “rank thoughts” that they foist onto the speaker, thus showing their own pettiness, while nothing genuine about their intended target is even addressed.

The Couplet: Evil vs Creativity

Unless this general evil they maintain,
All men are bad and in their badness reign.

Such gossiping poseurs who negatively criticize might as well hold that “all men are bad and in their badness reign.” But it is the “general evil” of the poseurs who possess the reign of badness. They would destroy creativity in their own evil. But this speaker exposes their wickedness and blunts their sharp invective.

The real "Shakespeare"

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

Michael Dudley Bard Identity: Becoming an Oxfordian

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes