Shakespeare Sonnet 121: "’Tis better to be vile than vile esteem’d"

Updated on January 30, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Source

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

First Quatrain: “’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:

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: “For why should others’ false adulterate eyes”

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: “No, I am that I am, and they that level”

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: “Unless this general evil they maintain”

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.

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

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 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 (Erroneously "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.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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