Shakespeare Sonnet 121 Analysis: Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed

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This is a short summary of Shakespeare sonnet 121. Continue reading for complete analysis and meaning in the modern text. For the complete list of 154 sonnets, check the collection of Shakespeare Sonnets with analysis. It is highly recommended to buy “The Monument” by Hank Whittemore, which is the best book on Shakespeare Sonnets.

Shakespeare Sonnet 121 (Original Text)

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.

Shakespeare Sonnet 121 Modern Text (Translation)

Shakespeare Sonnet 121 modern English translation

-via SparkNotes

Shakespeare Sonnet 121 Analysis

The poet says it is better to be bad and disgusting rather than people think you to be “’Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,” especially when one is accused of being vile when one is not so “When not to be receives reproach of being,” when one does not get to enjoy the pleasure of the vile action one is accused of “And the just pleasure lost which is so deemed” where the pleasure is enjoyed not by the accused feeling but by people’s eyes instead “Not by our feeling but by others’ seeing”

The poet questions why other corrupt people get to act pleased “For why should others’ false adulterate eyes” or salute at the poets own lusty inclinations “Give salutation to my sportive blood?” and why should weaker people judge the people’s weakness “Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,” and decide that what the poet thinks as good for them is bad “Which in their wills count bad what I think good?

The poet says he is what he is “No, I am that I am, and they that level” and his accusers are only revealing their own corrupt nature “At my abuses reckon up their own;” the poet says he is good although others are bad “I may be straight, though they themselves be bevel.” And his actions cannot be judged by their foul thoughts “By their rank thoughts my deeds must not be shown,”

He says that he should only be judged by their deeds when they too admit their evil “Unless this general evil they maintain:” that all men are bad and even thrive and reign with evil

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