Sonnet 121 by William Shakespeare

‘Sonnet 121,’ also known as ‘‘Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,’ is a poem about corruption and honesty. The speaker declares his intolerance of hypocrites who try to judge him. 

Sonnet 121′ is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It is directed towards a young man known as the “Fair Youth” and picks up where the previous sonnets such as ‘Sonnet 118,’ ‘119,’ and 120  left off. The Fair Youth, who the speaker has cheated on, is a person that has never been identified in real life, nor has the true nature of the poet’s relationship with him been uncovered. This has led many readers and scholars to speculate about Shakespeare’s sexuality or if the poet is meant to be the speaker in these lines at all. This poem is part of a sequence that deals with the aftermath of the speaker’s infidelity.

Sonnet 121 by William Shakespeare

 

Summary

‘Sonnet 121’ by William Shakespeare is a poem about being true to one’s self, admiring mistakes, and corruption.

Throughout this poem, the speaker makes his position in regard to hypocrisy and honesty quite clear. He knows he’s made mistakes, but he refuses to be judged by the sinful, corrupt men around him. They shouldn’t be saying anything about him, considering what they’ve all done in their lives. He’d happily hear what they have to say, he concludes, if they’d admit their own mistakes. 

 

Themes 

Throughout ‘Sonnet 121,’ Shakespeare enrages with themes of judgment and morality. The poet makes a point to use these fourteen lines to express his, or at least his speaker’s, viewpoint on hypocrites. Those he sees as condemning him for actions they’ve committed themselves. He’s vehement in his irritation with their judgments and desire to ignore them as best as he can. 

 

Structure and Form 

‘Sonnet 121’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that follows a consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. It is written in iambic pentameter, the most common of all English meters. In iambic pentameter, each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed, and the second is stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.

The poem can also be divided into three sets of four lines and a final two-line couplet. The last couplet usually comes after the turn or volta. This is the pattern that most Shakespearean sonnets follow, although there are always a few instances in which the meter or rhyme is broken.

 

Literary Devices 

Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 121’. These include but are not limited to examples: 

  • Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse, for example, “All men are bad and in their badness reign.” 
  • Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “vile” and “vile” in line one and “receives reproach” in line two.
  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines three and four as well as five and six. 

 

Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-4

‘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.

In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 121,’ the speaker begins by making a statement about being “vile” He suggests that actually being vile is better than being considered vile when one isn’t actually acting that way. The latter doesn’t give one the opportunity to actually commit the “vile” act. One is labeled that way without the satisfaction of going through with something others disapprove of. In these lines, the speaker is vaguely suggesting that he dislikes hypocrisy and that he’s going to focus on being himself. The speaker is also forced to consider whether or not his actions are truly vile. 

 

Lines 5-8 

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?

In the second quatrain, the speaker asks two questions. He wonders why others, those who are corrupt and now hypocritical, are allowed to criticize him. They have their own sins to be concerned with. His lustful attitude, or sportive blood, is his own issue. Or, he adds, why should those same people comment on his life and decide what he thinks is “good” or “bad.” It’s possible, the speaker alludes, that what one thinks is bad is actually good. This leads to the speaker’s determined assertion that he’s going to be truthful about his errors. This all relates back to the previous sonnets and his cheating. 

 

Lines 9-14 

No, I am that I am, and they that level

At my abuses reckon up their own;

I may be straight, they 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.

In the third and final quatrain, the speaker says that he is what he is. He isn’t going to change for anyone, especially not the hypocrites he’s just condemned. When someone speaks out against him, they are only revealing themselves. They are just as bad, if not worse. It’s possible that he “may be straight” and that they “themselves be bevel,” or crooked/corrupt. 

In the final two lines of the poem, which make a rhyming couplet, the speaker says that one can’t judge his actions in terms of corruptness. He doesn’t want these sinful people passing judgment on him. That is unless they’re willing to admit that all “men are bad” and that they enjoy that position. They reign/thrive there. If they did this, they’d automatically stop being hypocritical. 

 

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 121’ should also consider reading some of the other William Shakespeare poems. For example: 

  • Sonnet 17’ – the last of the procreation sonnets in which the speaker makes a plea to the Youth. He speaks about how his writing is only going to go so far. 
  • Sonnet 30’ – describes the speaker’s depression and what it is that lifts him out of it. 
  • Sonnet 94’ – suggests that the Fair Youth is on the verge of losing his admirable nature. The speaker describes who is in God’s good graces and who is not.

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Emma Baldwin
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analysing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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