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Shakespeare Sonnets 121: "’Tis better to be vile than vile esteem’d" and 81: "Or I shall live your epitaph to make"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 121: "’Tis better to be vile than vile esteem’d"

The speaker in sonnet 121 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence 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 esteem’d"

'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?
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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.

Shakespeare Sonnet 81: "Or I shall live your epitaph to make"

Sonnet 81 offers a glowing tribute to the speaker’s poems. He often extols the virtue of his own poetry because he is certain it will live long after he is gone.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 81: "Or I shall live your epitaph to make"

In sonnet 81, the speaker addresses his poem, as he often does. In this sonnet, the speaker is celebrating his gifts and offering a magnificent, glowing tribute to the poems themselves.

This speaker has often extolled the virtue of his own poetry because he is certain his creative compositions will live long after he has shuffled off the mortal coil.

Now the speaker chooses to place the poems themselves, indeed he even gives a nod to his plays, in the spotlight and shower on them the immortality that the feels they will experience.

Sonnet 81: "Or I shall live your epitaph to make"

Or I shall live your epitaph to make
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live,—such virtue hath my pen,—
Where breath most breathes,—even in the mouths of men.

Reading of Sonnet 81: "Or I shall live your epitaph to make"

Commentary on 81: "Or I shall live your epitaph to make"

Sonnet 81 offers a glowing tribute to the speaker’s poems. He often extols the virtue of his own poetry because he is certain it will live long after he is gone.

First Quatrain: Posing Two Ideas

Or I shall live your epitaph to make
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.

In the first quatrain, the speaker proposes two ideas: he will live to write the epitaph for his poetry, or his poetry will outlive him. The speaker chooses to believe and act on the latter because "From hence your memory death cannot take."

Even though the speaker, who lives in a physical body, must eventually die, death cannot take away his sonnets once he has written them. While the writer of the sonnets will be forgotten, the works themselves will remain eternally.

Second Quatrain: Naming His Art

Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.

After having finished composition of each sonnet, the speaker/poet christens the work, giving it a name, and he confidently proclaims "your name from hence immortal life shall have." This speaker has often shown his confidence in his talent, and he has often demonstrated his heavy reliance on his poetic muse.

The speaker then remarks that while his earthly flesh must be buried in that earth, his sublime poetry will live "in men’s eyes." The interesting metaphor of likening the poetry to the entombed body generates the opposite reality. The poetry is not "entombed" but is full of vibrant life.

Third Quatrain: Poetic Monument

Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;

The poetry will be a monument to the poet, but more importantly, it will be a monument to itself. The speaker calls his poetry "gentle verse." And the speaker then indicates that it is being written for "eyes not yet created." The speaker often projects his thoughts far into the future.

Not only will eyes play lovingly over this speaker's "gentle verse," but also "tongues to be your being shall rehearse." The speaker/poet seems to be referring not only to his sonnets but also to his plays, which, of course, continue even today to be performed world-wide.

The Couplet: Art Outliving Artist

You still shall live,—such virtue hath my pen,—
Where breath most breathes,—even in the mouths of men.

The speaker dramatizes the future of his poems in the couplet: "You still shall live,—such virtue hath my pen,— / Where breath most breathes,—even in the mouths of men."

When all the people who are living at the time of the speaker have vanished, he is confident that his poetic works "still shall live." It is by "virtue" of his "pen" that such a phenomenon can occur. He believes the poems as they will be spoken and read by future generations will have even more life than he could ever envision.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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