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Shakespeare Sonnet 121: "'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed"

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

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - the real "Shakespeare"

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - the real "Shakespeare"

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?

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"

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© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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