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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.

NOTES

CXXI. Separated to some extent from what precedes and from what follows. The poet, deeply moved at the scandal circulated concerning him, asserts that an evil reputation is worse than actual vileness. He does not claim to be blameless, but he was traduced by persons worse than himself, who were therefore unfit to criticise and censure his conduct. But perhaps they would deny the existence of distinctions in guilt or immorality, asserting that all men are alike corrupt, exulting and triumphing in evil.

2. When he who is not vile incurs the reproach of being so.

3, 4. And the just pleasure, -- that is, of self-respect or of an approving conscience. Which is so deemed looks back to what had been said in lines 1 and 2: "When the character which is not vile is so deemed, looked at by the eyes of others; though all the time our own conscience tells us that we are misjudged, and that we are not really vile."



5. Adulterate. Equivalent to "adulterous." Or in a more general sense, as "And bastards of his foul adulterate heart" (Lover's Complaint, line 175).

6. Take account of and criticise what my somewhat warm nature may do in gay or less restrained moments.

8. In their wills. These words maybe equivalent not merely to "in their minds," but with the added notion "in accordance with their wishes" -- "they would like to make me out bad."

9. No;-- I am that I am. With all my frailties, but yet not without something of good. Level. So as to take aim. Cf. cxvii. 11.

11. They should not think that because they diverge from the straight line (of rectitude) I must necessarily do the same.

13. Their rank thoughts. This, as well as preceding expressions, shows that the charge brought against the poet involved sensuality in some form or other.




How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Sonnets. Ed. Thomas Tyler. London: D. Nutt, 1890. Shakespeare Online. 10 Jan. 2014. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/121.html >.
How to cite the sidebars:
Mabillard, Amanda. Notes on Shakespeare. Shakespeare Online. 10 Jan. 2014. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/121.html >.
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